Why the panic?

The U.S. State Department has just issued another warning. It’s hard to understand why they want to discourage us from crossing the border, since the TOTAL of U.S. citizens killed in all of Mexico in 2011 was 120. To put that in some kind of perspective, there are around a million of us living here, and hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The odds of ever seeing trouble, let alone being a victim, are probably about one in a hundred thousand. I doubt that they are that low where you live; I know that they are much higher in the California town where we go for our annual visit.

Diana’s daughter and son-in-law just complete a trip from the southeastern U.S. to Oaxaca and Palenque in a camper truck. They crossed at Reynosa (one of the most dangerous crossings, according to the recent warning) both ways, and encountered no problems, nor any hint of problems. True, they are old travel hands and practice a sensible and rational set of precautions, but they – as we – are aware that the odds are with them.

[Benito X. Downs-Cohen, at his baptism, in the church by the big tree in Santa Maria del Tule, with parents Paul and Lila. ]

So, why do the “warnings” sound so dire, when the danger is not?  We, and a lot of the friends and fellow expats we talk to, just don’t get it. Not to say that there is no danger: the deaths, and a great many more car-jackings, are real enough. Still, it seems to us that our State Department could at least tell us how to minimize the chances of getting into trouble instead of trying to scare us.

[The State Department, in response to criticism for over-emphasizing the dangers, has now (Feb. 17) issued an “explanation” and “clarification”, which essentially walks back the latest warning…]

[This castillo was erected for the annual celebration of the “black Christ” of Esquipulas at Carmen Alto church. It was the tallest one I can recall seeing. At the end, a dove takes off from the very top and sails away into the sky. ]

How’re we doing with the tourists?

The hotel owners are crying, making an interesting counterpoint with the whimpering street vendors. Their dirge has many variations, but the main refrain is “the tourists are not coming to Oaxaca because of the social unrest”.

Recently, I read an article on the NASDAQ site that suggested a quite different scenario. ASUR, the corporation that operates several airports, including Oaxaca’s, reported that, while annual airline traffic in Mexico  was up 10% generally in 2011, over 2010, it went up 18% here. What to make of that?  A major article in USA Today touts travel to Mexico, and singles out Oaxaca as one of the places most recommended.

Diana and I often kick around the cognitive dissonance (we are told there are no tourists, but we see them all over town, and particularly in the sidewalk cafes around the Zócalo). News sources say that tourism is up ten percent from last year. Who are these tens of thousands of travelers?  Where are they from?  What are they here for?

Well, it turns out that they are from everywhere, including Mexico; that they are here because they hear and read that Oaxaca (and it’s trademark Mezcál among other things) are the latest “in” thing for close-to-home travel; that many are looking for a place to retire or establish a second home; and that they don’t exactly believe the State Department’s dire warnings any more than we do.

[A mural Diana came upon on one of her several trips out of town with her daughter and son-in-law. ]

We suspect that the poor sales many vendors are enduring stem from an increase among their number; as well as the cheap Chinese junk that is flooding the whole world, including Oaxaca. Their suffering is real enough. I have less sympathy for the hoteliers, who are feeling the effects of overbuilding…

[ Alebrije maker Jacobo Angeles appears to be entering his rococo period. Artesania becomes art. . . ]

Canadians go home:

No, not the tourists, or the many residents, from the northern-most reaches of our shared continent. They are welcome, along with their peculiar dollars and their funny pronunciation: “aboot”?  really?

We’re talking major international corporations – almost all of which are based in  Canada,  dealing in “resource development” such as gold and silver mining – that have a terrible record of ecological offenses, starting in their own northern indigenous areas, and continuing throughout the world, most particularly in Peru and elsewhere in our southern hemisphere. Gold Corp, Fortuna, and their brethren, have poisoned major aquifers and destroyed local ecosystems with their careless and destructive mining practices. They are not the only ones – Coca Cola will require huge amounts of water for their new industrial Mezcál plant near Tlacolula, and local farmers are going to have to stand by and watch their irrigation systems dry up – but they are among the worst.

Here in Oaxaca, mostly in the mountainous area to the east of Ocotlán, there is a small-scale civil war going on. Since the miners were invited in by our notoriously corrupt ex-governor, Ulises, the village of San José Progreso has become a battle ground between those who want to preserve the water and those who just want to make a buck. Those who object to the mine do not talk to those who approve, and things have gone so far that they have separate “governments”. Folks on both sides have been shot, although – as is usually the case – the vast majority of victims come from the ranks of the dissenters. Local anti-mining organizers have been killed, and the local priest was beaten so badly that he chose to leave the area, taking up duties in one of the Oaxaca city parishes.

[Diana and family took a lot of trips together in January. One place they went was Mazunte, on the south coast of Oaxaca, where Diana captured the spirit of this place writ large]

Progreso has been occupied at various times by state and federal police, and the army. Recently, the shooting of a well-respected citizen and anti-mining organizer has drawn the attention of the Canadian media and an aroused citizenry. Articles criticizing the board chair of Fortuna for supporting an atmosphere of lawlessness in Progreso are appearing in Canadian newspapers, particularly in his home town of Vancouver. He has felt it necessary to respond: of course he doesn’t have anything to do with the whole issue; it was –coincidentally – an ongoing family land dispute in which the fellow was shot; and Fortuna deplores the violent lawless atmosphere that has always existed there  (and no doubt in almost every location where the company does business).

What disturbs a lot of folks – and especially the ecologically-minded – is that the recent change in governor will likely accelerate the process of dislocation and exploitation. Gabino is, first and foremost, a globalist; a development kind of guy. Seen as an incorruptible reformer – his popularity is orders of magnitude greater that Ulises’ was – Gabino’s pitch for selling off Oaxaca’s resources will get a wider hearing.

In a meeting of governors with the president and the head of the external affairs ministry, Gabino touted Oaxaca’s vast untapped reservoirs of natural resources, such as metals and pharmaceuticals. When big pharma comes to town, whole forests suffer from bark removal, edible mushroom harvesting, and more. The selling off of land for large wind farms along the Pacific coast goes on apace. The “railroad canal” section of the Plan Puebla Panama is being revived. Crossing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf to Salina Cruz on the south coast, it cuts through the largest remaining rain-forest in Mexico.

On the other side of the coin is Gabino’s close political connection to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the declared candidate of the center left PRD, whose own connections – and promises – to the indigenous people who often live in the places where the developmentalists do their extractions lead him to question whether the global / development model is the way to go.

[These are, according to the displaced “good” Triquis, the “bad” Triquis. MULT was basically stooging for the bad governor, Ulises, when San Juan Copala was torn apart during an attempt to become a Zapatista-style autonomous municipio. The autonomous faction called themselves MULT-I. If it is hard to tell which are which, without a banner, that’s because they are cousins, children, in-laws, etc. . . ]

The Triquis can’t go home:

For the last year and a half, a contingent of Triqui indigenous women and children have been camped out under the arches in front of the governor’s palace on the south side of the Zócalo. They are from the village of San Juan Copala, in the Mixteca Alta, not far from the regional market center of Tlaxiaco. They belong to a political / social division known as MULT-I.

Right now, they can’t return to their village. They fear for their lives if they do. They thought they might be able to, when the governor brokered a deal with the folks who drove them out, but it turned out to be a “misunderstanding”. They had decamped from their shelter downtown to make the trip home, only to have it made painfully clear to them that they would not be re-admitted, and now they are in limbo, in a town near to their village, trying to influence events from a place that does not even have an internet connection.

We too are in limbo, awaiting some sort of resolution to this ongoing saga. Hopefully, along with a short history of the conflict, the next Newsletter will have some… well… news…


Irving Goldworm, photographer, racconteur, friend, gentle man, gentleman, and survivor of years in Synanon – not at all a mean feat – passed away on February 21 from complications of cancer.

Irving was blessed by many friends, a loving wife, and a sympathetic and understanding doctor. He made the decision to refuse treatment early on in his illness, citing his age and his Buddhist beliefs. As a person who is currently living with in-remission cancer, I can tell you that I admired him greatly for his decision and for the way that he comported himself. Irving was a mensch. He will be missed by many of us.


***Beware of crying children:   We saw a poster in the Post Office warning folks against crying children who show unsuspecting samaritans a piece of paper with an address on it, and plead to be accompanied home, because they are afraid to go alone. When they get there, the hapless do-gooder gets robbed and / or kidnapped. . .

***Prostitution in Oaxaca:  The national weekly newsmagazine Milenio recently published an article claiming that Oaxaca is both a major source and a major market for enslavement of 14-to-25 year olds of both sexes. The gangs that run this activity are said to come primarily from Puebla and Tlaxcala states, but I believe that as time goes on, the Zetas, already well entrenched in the Abastos market and other commercial centers, will take over this racket, as they have in other places in Mexico. Buying and selling of children is nothing new in Oaxaca: we have been reporting on this since 1994. Of course this could not be occurring without the assistance of corrupt officials all up and down the line: a good thing to remember when we laugh off the “harmless” corruption one encounters in normal daily life. . .

***Hot spot:  Of the 110 Oaxacans killed in “narco-related incidents” in the 1st 9 months this year, 1/4 were in the (relatively small) Cuenca region. This area is on the border between the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz (where disputes over trafficking routes have recently heated up).

***From the Strategy Center, December 11, 2011:   “The U.S. government is considering establishing an unmanned port of entry. But hold on, given the location it makes sense. The town of Boquillas del Carmen is across the Rio Grande from a very isolated portion of Big Bend National Park, Texas. The village’s Mexican hinterland is mountains and desert. It is a place that you can’t get there from here. The Boquillas kiosk would have a camera and digital link to a Border Patrol and Customs office in the park. To actually enter the U.S. from the crossing requires traveling on several miles of park road and check points exiting the park. American tourists would be able to use the kiosk to legally cross into the Mexican village. Park officials argue that the unmanned kiosk would actually improve security. ”

***Oaxaca’s baseball Guerreros are in spring training, in anticipation of a home town opener on March 17. Opening night is always a hoot, but don’t expect green beer… We wouldn’t miss it for the world. How  about you?