“Lienza de Charro”. The sign is small, and off to the side of the busy highway to “the Etlas” and Mexico City. If you aren’t looking for it, it just doesn’t register. An arrow points to a dirt frontage road which follows the highway briefly before turning off to the right. You have to want to get there: the road is pot-holed, uneven and twisty. We are on it in search of a story.

The Charro (cowboy) is a Mexican institution; an image to be cultivated; a sartorial and cultural statement. Charros dress a certain way, and if you are in the know you can tell where a Charro comes from by his costume: the colors, the length of his coat, and other factors too esoteric for this city gringo to grasp. In the annual revolution day parade on November 20, charros (men and women) are always the final marching component. I don’t go to rodeos, and have no particular interest in dressage, so why am I on this bumpy, dusty road on my way to a dusty dirt ring?

Today is a special day in the world of equestrian performance in Oaxaca. Only women will be performing, riding side-saddle in full plumage. This is the first of what is hoped will be many annual events of its’ kind, where teams of riders from all over Mexico will compete for prizes and honors. The teams who come here will have won local competitions for the honor of attending. Whatever this is, we should be seeing the best of the best of it: always an intriguing idea.

At the end of the trail is a full-blown performance area, complete with stalls for the horses, an outdoor restaurant with steam-table food, parking lots with places for cars marked off in white chalk and lots of state traffic cops to help you line up, corrals for extra mounts, and a covered concrete bleacher facing a concrete-walled round performance ring. In the bleacher, vendors pass by hawking various snacks. No liquor is sold, although there is no stricture against bringing your own, and the mezcal is flowing freely.

Walking through the grounds to the bleacher we pass by groups of women in bright costumes, some mounted, and some not. These are the Escaramuzas, (teams of horsewomen) who will be performing today.

To the side, there is an uncovered bleacher with two bands on it. One group wears the uniform of the Oaxaca state marching band, and is there only to drum and fife for the parading of the colors. Everyone stands for the national anthem, sung after all the teams have entered, saluted the v.i.p’s at the top center of the main bleachers, and the flag has been ceremoniously brought front and center in the ring. The flag is retired, and the competition begins.

All the teams but one (who wear trousers) wear long, full skirts that cover their legs and the horse’s rump. The youngest looks to be about 8. The oldest may be in her early thirties. Most appear to be high school or junior college age.

Escaramuza horses tend to be small, and the ones we see are beautiful specimens, whose prancing, galloping form and shining coat advertise care, discipline, and expense. These are not working cow ponies. They are show horses, in more senses than one.

The competition is in two parts. First, three or four people from a team of six or eight persons come galloping singly into the ring, in which a rectangle is drawn in chalk. The object is to enter the top of the rectangle going as fast as you can, and then stop your horse in the shortest possible distance while remaining within the lines. The best practically sit their horses down with all four legs digging into the dirt.

The second part is a sort of ballet, in which the horses dance around each other; cut across each other’s paths; and run around the ring in a line at top speed. Difficult stuff, made to look easy. These are serious performers, with a lot of hours of practice behind them.

The big surprise of the day is a team from – who would have thunk it? – California. Young women of Mexican descent, living in an area roughly bounded by San Jose and Sacramento, with headquarters near Merced (most folks think of this as “northern” California, but it is really Central California: ask any advocate of splitting up the state). They put on an amazing performance, clearly the best we see, the more so since they did not bring their own horses. The horses they ride are borrowed, and they have had no chance to practice with them. Their riding is a tribute to their skill, and to the level of training that the various owners have given to their mounts.

Afterwards, we talk to some of the young gringas. We discover that there is a growing number of Escaramuzas in the U.S., with competitions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia, New York state, and northern Illinois. Most of the riders are third generation Mexican-Americans, and most do not speak as much Spanish as we do. For almost all of them, this is their first time in Mexico.

We leave after about three hours, with a couple of teams to go. Backless concrete benches have a limited attraction. We don’t know who won…


They freed the Oaxaca 3 while we were away on a trip. By the time we got back home, Mary Ellen Sanger and John Barbato had left the country, and Joseph Simpson was out of the hospital and back at Russell Ames’ house, his cancer in temporary remission.

John and Mary Ellen were respected by the other prisoners. They were friendly, helpful (Mary Ellen taught English, translated documents, and transcribed (almost all the prisoners are poor, and among the poor there is a high incidence of illiteracy)), and were identified as fellow victims by the prison population: a significant percentage of prisoners in Mexico are there because of land disputes.

Friends in the gringo community organized daily visits, food deliveries, and payments for lawyers. Francisco Toledo, millionaire artist and philanthropist, and “infant terrible” of the local arts and culture scene is said to have gone personally to governor José Murát Casáb to complain about the situation. Articles published in the Washington Post and other “papers of record”, as well as the public statements of legislators such as Patrick Leahy and Barbara Lee certainly had some value. The pressure never let up, all the time they were in jail.

Judges are even more corrupt down here than they are where you live. A Mexican saying goes “why rent a lawyer, when you can buy a judge”. Money, favors, coercion, political and family loyalties: all play a part in it. The judge in this case appears to have been totally in the pocket of the government minister.

This young lady is wearing her the colors of her mother’s escaramuza.

According to the Three and their friends, the record was filled with reversible “errors” by the judge, including refusing to take relevant witness testimony, denying certification to documents establishing their innocence, and refusing to hear pleas based on plain error in the documents that were submitted in order to obtain the arrest warrants in the first place.

Rumors abound about how they got out. As a certified expatriate retiree, baptized and confirmed in the Church of Social Security, I can’t help but get involved in the Zócalo Chowder and Speculation Society game of creative guessing. I have pared down all the third-hand stories to the two most likely.

One rumor has it that no-one from the opposition showed up at a scheduled appeal hearing on November 6 before a federal judge, effectively defaulting. It is said that the reason they didn’t show up was that the federal judge would have put his state colleague’s malfeasance on the record. This would mean that an order was issued, and they have been cleared of all charges.

A food hawker takes a break.

Another rumor has it that, knowing this was going to happen, the state judge ordered them released on her own, without any accompanying paperwork; that one day the prisoners were called to the bars that separate the prisoners’ section from the rest of the prison (the prisoner section is run by the prisoners, and no guard dares enter), and told to get their things and go. This would mean that they could be rearrested at any time, a situation that would explain Mary Ellen’s decision not to return to Mexico. It’s also the rumor I favor, since it tends to show the capriciousness and lack of justice-as-we-conceive-of-it in the Mexican legal system.

Whatever actually happened, things appear to have ended better for the 3 than it might have: they are out. But wait, there are yet more twists and turns to come. The administration of their township – the same folks who stoned the thugs that blockaded Russell’s gate (see last Newsletter) – are said to be filing a lawsuit of their own, claiming the land in question was illegally sold to Russell in the first place. The land, they say, was ejido land. Ejidos are entities established under post-revolutionary law, as a way to redistribute land to landless peasants. Ejidos are collectively owned by the people who reside on them, and according to the law as it was when the land was sold, are indivisible (that law has since been expunged in favor of private development). There have been many such cases brought over the years, and some have been decided for the new landowners, and some not. In almost every case, however, the litigation took years and was massively expensive. There are four separate parcels involved: one which he sold which was later subdivided, as well as his place, so this is likely to be in the courts for a long time.


If the presidential election were held today, the most likely winner would be Andres Manuel López Obrador, the governor of Mexico City. All the polls show him as the most popular of the potential candidates in the 2006 election, with a whopping 50% of those polled in his camp. However, he has been severely hampered by the general lack of organization within his party, the PRD, especially as compared to the powerful machines of the PRIand the PAN. Now, things are a little more even, not because the PRD has become better organized, but because of the bitter divisions that have been occurring lately in the other major parties.

Like it or not (and many of its stalwarts do not), PAN, the ruling party of president Vicente Fox Quesada is tied to the president’s political fortunes, and right now his stock is falling. The coalition that he formed across party lines, particularly with PRD leftist intellectuals, is falling apart. Early this year, Fox’s first foreign secretary, Jorge Casteñeda, left the government embittered because he was being forced to follow pro-U.S. (and anti-Mexican) programs [ see the January 15 newsletter ]. Last week, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser resigned as Mexican ambassador to the United Nations over a remark he made to a student audience in Mexico City that the “intellectual and political class” in the U.S. see Mexico as a “back yard”. Fox called him out of touch with reality and made it clear that Adolfo would not be re-appointed when the present U.N. term runs out at the end of this year.

Electoral figures come and go, but the plight of the average campesino goes endlessly on. This is a banner from the now two-month-old encampment in front of the governor’s palace in Oaxaca. It says, we are older than our problems, and therefore we will win in the end.

It’s not just the leftist intellectuals – many of whom abandoned the PRD candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cárdenasin 2000 to back Fox because they were desperate to overturn the 75-year rule of the PRI and thought Fox the only candidate who stood a chance to do so – who have been alienated by Fox’s acquiescence to U.S. pressure, particularly when it comes to the nation and the hemisphere. Many in his own party, and virtually everyone in the PRI, are opposed to his “globalist” positions on privatization (sell all government-owned industry to foreigners), trade (NAFTA first and sovereignty a poor second) hemispheric relations (keep the Cuban embargo), and taxation (put a sales tax on food, medicine and books).

Normally, such disarray in the PAN would be good news for the PRI, but they, too, are having some serious problems. As you may recall from previous newsletters, the PRI has been split between two factions: the regular PRI and the upstart Convergencia (convergence) party. In Oaxaca, PRI is led by governor José Murat, and Convergence (through intermediaries) by ex-governor Diódoro Carrasco Altamirano. They in turn represent .Roberto Madrazo, the head of the PRI, and Carrasco, (and, some say, ex-president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León) respectively. Basically, it is split between the old populist, nationalist PRI and the not-so-old technocrat, globalist PRI. While Convergence did not run a presidential candidate in 2000, they did win a lot of local and state level elections, and appear to be growing in strength. They currently hold the mayoralty of Oaxaca.

Throw in ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, now back in Mexico at Fox’s request to help him push his globalist agenda (even though Salinas’ people and Zedillo’s people don’t trust each other very much) by bringing he PRI in line, and you have a formula for total chaos, which is about where things appear to be today.

Madrazo and his deputy in the legislature, Elba Esther Gordillo – who like Madrazo comes to her position with a political history steeped in corruption, misapplied funds, and general bossism (she ran the country’s largest teachers’ union) – are in hot water over their decision to push a “compromise plan” which was nothing more than a thinly diguised rehashing of Fox’s plan to slap a 10% sales tax on food and medicine. The defection of most of the PRI governors – including Murat – and a significant number of PRI legislators from this plan, pretty much sealed its doom. Now everyone in the PRI is back-pedaling, saying it was only a trial balloon, they weren’t really behind it, etc.

Meanwhile, Madrazo and Gordillo are at each others’ throats, because Madrazo, quick to see the error of his ways, backed off and claimed that he never told Gordillo to back the “PRI compromise” and that he, Madrazo, never for one second thought it was a good idea. Gordillo called him a liar. He said if she couldn’t take the discipline, she should consider stepping down. Whether the PRD will be able to take advantage of this opportunity, when both of the other major parties are imploding, remains to be seen. The PRD has its’ own problems, not the least of which is the eternal quest of party founder Cárdenas for the presidency in spite of two resounding defeats in 1994 and 2000. With Cárdenas, the party doesn’t have a chance. With Lopez, it’s possible, but only if the Cardenistas outside the capital (which is solid for Lopez) get on the bus…

The Cathedral is looking better all the time. Last week, the central tiled dome was uncovered.


George and Ellie McGrath, long-time residents, for decades Library stalwarts and expatriate pioneers in their hillside neighborhood of San Pablo Etla, suffering from ill health, have sold their house and moved back to “the other side”.

Sadly, a short while after the death of her husband Al, Sylvia Bernstein succumbed this week to pancreatic cancer, at home in Washington D.C. Sylvia and Al were investigated by Joe McCarthy, persecuted for their progressive beliefs whenever the bosses had a chance, and never stopped working for the rights of others. We miss them both. Real heroes and life examples don’t come around all that often.


There’s no mention here of our return trip. That’s because there was so much else to write about, and because the trip wasn’t all that exciting: just mostly getting home, already! However, what highlights there were, will show up in subsequent Newsletters.