A vacation from our vacation:

On our way to California, we made a stop in Valle de Bravo. All the photos in this edition were taken there. VdB is a town situated about half way between MexCity and Morelia, about three hours by bus from the Mexico / Tasqueño depot. Lots of water (heaven, for high-desert dwellers such as we), picturesque architecture (it is on the list of “Magic Cities” in Mexico), nestled in the mountains, and clean. Lots of well-off folks have second homes in VdB.

The Zócalo really is a gem, with a handsome kiosk, lots of places to sit, and topiary atop some of the topiary.

Main attraction in VdB is the lake/reservoir at the bottom of the town. A movie theater just opened – it will be the only one in town. Except for sitting in a café by the Zócalo and watchibg the passing scene, most of the tourist action is around – and on- the lake. This is a great place to cool out.

We were only there a few days, and stayed with friends, so we don’t have much to report about the hotel or restaurant scene. My impression was that bed and board for travelers is stiff, formal, clean and reasonably priced.

On the downside, the streets are mostly cobblestone (hard to walk on for old fogies like us) and the sidewalks tend to be very narrow and uneven in the downtown area

I’m not much for “view property”, preferring flat paths to my favorite haunts, but I have to say that the vista from our friends’ place was truly awesome. We’ll return.

Another death in the Oaxaca Expat Community:

We met Tonee Mello shortly after he first arrived in Oaxaca, about ten years ago. He had been recommended to us by a mutual friend as a community activist and general all-round progressive. Our first impressions were positive, and remained so when, along with George Salzman and others, he formed the Oaxaca Study Action Group (OSAG)and personally transported cheap, easily installed and run, low-powered community radio station equipment from the U.S. to dissident voices in the mountains and farmlands of Oaxaca.

When the Board of the Oaxaca Lending Library, where the group was meeting, tossed the OSAG group out for being too controversial (read, too left wing) for their delicate sensibilities, Tonee resigned from that board, to his credit.

So,why didn’t I open up to Tonee? It was not because he was gay: stuff like that just doesn’t matter to me; to each his or her own, as the saying goes. It certainly wasn’t because of his anarchist orientation. I approved of what Tonee did, I admired his willingness to put himself out front, I generally liked most of the people he liked – especially Nancy Davies and her husband. What was it, I kept asking myself.

My conclusion was that he might be trouble. He’d had trouble in Fresno, I was told, where he was running a needle exchange program. He’d moved out of two neighborhoods that I knew of in Oaxaca, after having problems with his neighbors. On a couple of occasions, I had witnessed behavior that I thought was politically correct but socially provocative; a sort of I’m right, screw you attitude.

I actually liked the guy. He was generous, loyal to his friends, and willing to put his walk where his talk was. Still, warning bells sounded in my head when he was around, so I really never got to know him. Please understand that I do not in any way intend to “blame the victim”. No matter what the faults he might have had, nobody deserves to be beaten to death with a crowbar, shot twice in the head, and thrown down a well.

Tonee was killed in a brutal and vicious way, and a few days later, Nancy Davies’ son-in-law Alan was snatched from in front of his house by men in plain clothes and taken to a state holding facility; and soon after that her daughter Kenny was also detained.

We met Alan and Kenny a couple of times at parties, at which we spoke to each other briefly. We barely know them. What we know of Nancy, and the impressions we had of Alan and Kenny, makes us skeptical of the conclusions some of the US community have drawn: that they had done, or caused to be done, this vicious, sickening, and scary murder.

Fair disclosure: I feel a commitment to support Nancy personally, through this ordeal: a commitment that does not include lying, distorting the truth, or otherwise propagandizing in her favor or that of her family. I have not been asked by her, or anyone else, outside some of my subscribers, to write about the affair. I do so partly because of a sense of unease at the way things have played out in Oaxaca over the last few months.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that like most Mexicans, and much of the rest of the world, I believe Mexico to be a corrupt and failing (if not already failed) State. The nexus between the criminals and the cops renders the two “sides” indistinguishable. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in Noticias that a kidnapping group had been caught.  The leader was an ex-auxiliary policeman.  The para-police group he belonged to, the so-called banking and industrial police (as nasty a bunch of thugs as ever there was), has been connected to all sorts of violent crime over the years. “Someone broke in and stole my t.v.”, a friend said to me. “Oh, that’s terrible”, I responded. “Did you report it to the police?” “Oh, no”, he said to me. “At least the burglars left me the radio. The police wouldn’t be so generous”.

Corruption on this level means, among other things, that catching the “right” perpetrator is more important than catching the real perpetrator. Influential persons must be protected. Troublesome people can easily be gotten rid of. Just decide who should be guilty, arrest them, and build a case against them while they sit in detention awaiting a hearing. Thus, for example, arresting one of Brad Will’s companeros for killing him during a 2006 street demonstration kept the guy off the street – and out of the government’s hair – for most of a year, until he was released for lack of evidence against him. Meanwhile, the shooters, caught on video tape by Will’s camera in the act of shooting him, still walk the streets unpunished.

It feels like there has been a small increase in the number of gringos killed by Mexicans in Oaxaca. In the last two most prominent cases, Laine Gilbert and Tonee Mello, the victim was a gay male, relatively well-off by Oaxaca terms. In almost all previous cases, it was a gringo being attacked by a Mexican. Bad for tourism. Thus the chance to blame this on non-Mexicans must have looked like the brass ring to the politically sensitive authorities.

There are other scenarios being suggested: it was a narco-hit; it was somebody else entirely; it had to do with Tonee’s sexual orientation; he flashed his wealth too much. None of these scenarios was ever explored. Nor did the official investigation ever rise to the level of the Keystone Kops. Nobody was looking for anyone else, because Alan and Kenny were just too damned convenient, with the added bonus that much of the gringo community was happy to not only accept the police theory – as leaked to the local pay-for-play rags – but to embellish it with rumors of a “victims list”, of which Tonee was to have been merely the first.

Judges in Mexico are evidence gatherers. They want to “solve” the crime. This, in spite of the fact that only about 1% of crimes – most go unreported – ends up with a conviction.  The only time a defendant gets a break from them is if there is no credible evidence linking the accused to the crime, the suspect is too powerful to touch, or a large amount of money changes hands.

The judges said there was not enough credible evidence to justify an indictment.  So, since Alan and Kenny are out on bail, does that mean that the judges were bribed?  Aside from the fact that nobody has provided any evidence that such princely sums as this kind of high-profile case would bring, had actually changed hands – anybody’s hands – all that is left is to assume that they are innocent. Speculating on whether three actual judges took actual bribes is not only needlessly inflamatory; it may be criminally actionable under Mexican law.

If anyone who reads this has credible evidence directly connecting Alan and Kenny to the crime, I urge you to come forth and present it. No prejudicial hysteria, please, and no blind repetition of “leaked” police statements or coerced confessions from alleged accomplices. This is serious stuff, folks. Lives are at stake. Think about it.

And think of this: every time we as a group allow the police to violate the rights of any one of us, all of us lose. I don’t have to like you to defend your right to a reasonable, public investigation and a fair hearing. Guilt or innocence is not the issue for me. I’m neither a judge nor an investigator.  It’s about solidarity. That doesn’t mean cover-up. It means me becoming stronger by demanding fairness for you. Innocent ’til proven guilty…

Update: Three young Mexicans are now being detained by the authorities. Their guilt or innocence has yet to be decided.

We escaped the heat, and the teachers:

It finally warmed up in California’s San Joaquin Valley this month: today the high will be around 100 degrees. Thank goodness for air conditioning. We haven’t bought an avocado since we got here (too expensive), but the berries and sweet corn are coming in just now, so it’s not all bad.

We’ve been following the annual occupation by the teachers with great interest, from afar, via various internet newspapers and blogs; and talking to friends on the ground via text messaging and Skpe. I can make a few general observations:

In the ten-plus years that we have followed it, there is a natural life cycle to the yearly pageant. It starts on May 1, when May Day is celebrated world-wide. The teachers and the Medical workers; the electric workers and the garbage haulers, all send small contingents carrying banners, some of which advocate for a particular cause, and others of which say “we support xxx”. The speeches are generally pretty short, and the rally breaks up in plenty of time for the demonstrators to do their daily shopping and go home. Except for one thing. The teachers bring a laundry list of their latest demands. They warn that if their demands are not met by May 15, there will be chaos in the streets.

When May 15 rolls around, having reached no agreement with the state government, the teachers, tens of thousands strong, converge on the Zócalo and start putting up tents and tarps. After a couple of weeks of rolling blockades, government office disruptions, traffic chaos, and with the exception of the mass attacks of 2006, an occasional roughing-up of a teacher and maybe a raid on teacher headquarters, an agreement is announced. A significant minority of members oppose it, but it passes. Nobody is satisfied. Nobody (except the union big-shots) expects to really see any of the proposed money. Everyone goes home for a little summer vacation. Nothing changes much.

Since 2006,it feels like each year is a little less of a winner for the teachers. They do get nominal raises and allowances, adjustments in the way some things get done, and even an adequate amount of shoes for the students in a few districts, but they appear to be losing the support of the people.

I can’t remember a year when I’ve heard more grumbling from contacts in Oaxaca about the teachers’ plantón (occupation; sit in): its messiness, its unfriendliness, its cynical attitude, and the serious disruptions in the daily lives of average folks just trying to get to work in the morning. This even from people who are generally supportive both of unions in general and public workers’ unions in particular.

Anyway, it appears that things in Oaxaca may go back to “normal”, whatever that may turn out to be, and that the medical poobahs may release me to return there before the rainy season stops…

Guelaguetza update:

The following appeared this week on the OSAG website, written by Nancy Davies.

“From our neighborhood we can see the Gueleguetza stadium roof nearing completion, a white shiny winged surface. It reflects the modernizing pretensions of its initiator, Ulises Ruiz [URO], and maybe those of its inheritors, the PAN mayor Luis Ugartechea and Convergencia governor Gabino Cué. Whether it will fulfill its desired function of keeping out the rain and the sun is yet to be seen, what is not to be seen is the view of Oaxaca from the auditorium on top of Fortín Hill, what was called the Azucenas. Blocked. In past years from 2006 on, URO bussed in people to fill the seats. Whether Cué will do the same, I don’t know. The real tourism, at 450 pesos per seat, seems diminished; the dancing is reminiscent of Radio City Music Hall, programmed, slick, professional, and attended by an audience who want to look at the “native” costumes, which of course are not authentic either. But colorful.

“Fortunately, once again Section 22 is sponsoring a popular Guelaguetza for Oaxaca, on the same days as the pay-for-professional show biz sponsored by the tourist industry. The Popular Guelaguetza has been held as a gift by the teachers for the past five years in the athletic stadium of the Instituto Tecnologico de Oaxaca, ITO, which has no roofing—everyone seems to carry an umbrella for shade and rain, it’s the customary appendage here in Oaxaca City, and a necessity for whities, especially in mid-day sun. The athletic field bleachers are ample, and the Guelaguetza is authentic: free, informal, fun, and full of enthusiastic children and adults. The announcer broadcasts lost kids and warnings to look out for flying grapefruit thrown by the dancers who “gift” the audience with fruits and candies; if you get conked with a grapefruit the first aid station is right behind the south bleachers, he advises. Fortunately they don’t throw pineapples, although women dance with a pineapple on their shoulders. The popular G also brings in dance troups excluded from the professional event, maybe because they’re black or maybe for being less slick or maybe blacklisted—I don’t know…

The ITO access area in the past has been filled with vendors of food, soft drinks (no booze permitted, nor weapons of any type) and artisan products, the usual good/junk mix of Oaxaca. Buses and taxis can bring you, although in the past we walked, it’s across the roadway from the Alvaro Carrillo theater. The schedule this year is for the “convite” (a parade invitation to attend) leaving Carmen Alto Plazuela at 8:00 AM on Saturday (all hours are given in the hour of Resistance, i.e. an hour earlier than government/neoliberal daylight savings); Sunday is the traditional parade preview through the streets of Centro, and Monday the Guelaguetza itself starts at 8:00 AM.

[The dates are July 25 and August 1: Stan]


**Gasoline prices are going up nationwide, for the sixth time this year. One result: cab fares are going up ten pesos. About time, in my opinion: cab fares have stayed the same for years, while the price for gasoline has been steadily increasing. Could bus fares be far behind?

**Check out this two-part series from Al Jezeera English on the “drug war” in the state of Guerrero, and elsewhere in Mexico. One of the best analyses I have seen, right up there with the writings of Laura Carlson, Kristen Bricker, and Al Giordano.http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/faultlines/2011/06/201162174315458265.html

**According to a new government audit, which Gabino is instituting sequentially in every department, there are 18,000 “irregular” taxis on the streets and roads of the state, most of which were registered in the last few weeks of URO’s term in office.

**A reader responds:

“I bought my first and only cell phone here in Oaxaca in Feb of 2009. I used it in my research of apartment rental options here in Oaxaca and then, having had the phone ‘unlocked’, in Quetzaltenango,in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

When I arrived back here in Oaxaca just now, I reinstalled the Telcel sim card,but when I turned it on, I got a message that said something like ‘Registration Failed’. Having read your FAQ regarding the new registration requirement, I assumed that that was […] my problem.

So, I stopped by a cell phone shop but they apparently couldn’t do it there. They pulled out a big map of Oaxaca, and directed me to one of two places that I would be able to register the phone. One was at Plaza del Valle, and the other was on Calzada Porfirio Diaz. They were busy, and they didn’t speak any english, and my spanish skills are pretty rudimentary, so I just jotted down those general location names, then went to the internet to better zero in on just where these places were.

Here’s the link to the Telcel webpage with the full address of the Telcel customer service center on Porfirio Diaz:

Calzada Porfirio Díaz No. 241, Col. Reforma, C.P. 68050, Oaxaca, Oax.

http://www.telcel.com/portal/contactanos/cacs/begin.do?mid=7100 ”

As it turned out, part of my problem was that since my Telcel sim card had had no unused pre-paid time on it for a couple of years, that card had been deactivated, and the phone number associated with it had been reassigned. So, I bought a new sim card, (140 MP), and got a new phone number. The customer service clerk did make a photocopy of my passport in the process, but they didn’t do any fingerprinting.”

[Stan: I reprint this contribution because I now realize I had not updated my previous article about cell phone registration. Apparently, the whole insanity about registering cell phones under the excuse that it will prevent organized criminals from using them is now clearly debunked. It is not clear to me why the passport was copied. As personal testimony, I offer in evidence my own recent cell phone purchase, in which – while my name was asked – no identification was required, either written or physical.]

**Another reader chastised me for “bum rapping” Mexico City in previous Newsletters. I agree with her.  Those articles are, however, somewhat dated.  I haven’t disparaged MexCity for a long time.

In fact, Diana and I find ourselves increasing the frequency with which we “take a few days off” and enjoy the ever-growing arts, food, and culture venues that are on offer there. We even flag down taxis on the street (although we tend to shun VW beetles). Security has also improved vastly on the Metro, and the front car of every train is for women only.