more views of San Cristobal

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Love at first sight

the irony is that this is from a meeting called to demonstrate the unity of Mexico's leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution

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Mexico’s free press

Miguel Granados Chapa’s morning broadcast has disappeared from the Chiapas airwaves. This is annoying because his programme provided a sharp analysis of current affairs and was helping me to get to grips with what is happening is this country. Granados Chapa is one of Mexico’s more distinguished journalists and his daily discussion of the news is probably the closest thing Mexico has to the Today Programme. He speaks in a slow and measured way, so even I can understand, and intersperses his discussions with short literary excerpts including recently an extract from a Mario Vargas Llosa story and an Octavio Paz poem. A big improvement on Thought for the Day.

All we can find in place of his broadcast are commercial stations which play rubbish Mexican pop and ads for San Cristobal’s larger shops, and local evangelical broadcasts in Spanish or Tzotzil which appear all over the bandwidth. It turns out that all of these are illegal stations. Radio (and TV) in Mexico is dominated by the media conglomerates Televisa and TV Azteca, which control 95% of TV transmissions and most of the airwaves as well. Regulations are written in their favour, hence the difficulty for community or independent radio stations to get on air legally.

Our friend, G, told us that following pressure from Televisa and Azteca the state government tried hard for a while to shut down the illegal radio stations. To avoid detection the Zapatista’s local radio station used to broadcast from the back of a blue VW Beetle, which was parked innocuously in different parts of the city. Things came to a head in 2008 when the authorities turned their attention to San Cristobal’s many evangelical stations. Their efforts succeeded only in uniting competing evangelical groups and the city’s indigenous communities. Thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets with banners warning that closing the radio stations would lead to a religious war. The government backed off.

I’ve also been looking for print media to understand better what’s going on in Chiapas and Mexico. There are many local newspapers but they’re thin and provide relatively little in the way of news. Mexico’s best national publications are the daily newspaper La Jornada and weekly magazine Proceso. Best, because independent and still willing to cover sensitive subjects like the drug war and political scandals in detail despite the widespread intimidation of journalists in Mexico.

The dangers for journalists and editors are very real. In September, Ciudad Juarez’s leading daily with a track record of investigating organised crime published a front page editorial asking the cartels how they should report, after two of its journalists were murdered. Yesterday a journalist’s house in Tabasco state was shot up after he authored articles on the corruption of local officials. G suffered himself after denouncing the theft of hurricane relief funds in Chiapas on community radio – thugs broke into his house, gave his flat mate a serious beating and sent horror movie DVDs to his office.

I gave up the search for the national titles after visiting all the shops and newsstands in the city centre. There are some back issues of Proceso on sale, but these are several months old. La Jornada apparently only arrives intermittently. G says that because of their critical coverage of events in Chiapas, the state government has leant heavily on distributors not to bring those titles in. On the more positive side there are ways round the controls – another friend in London has access to the online edition of Proceso which he sends R, and La Jornada can be read online also.

G is more upbeat on the the disappearance of Granados Chapa’s broadcast however – probably the result of nothing more sinister than the arrival of the Christmas holidays.

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some views of san cristobal

obviously these are the more picturesque views of the city

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how not to charm a Mexican four year old

We were driving back from our friends’ cafe with their four year old daughter, Asha. I sat in the back to chatting to her in my rudimentary spanish to try and keep her happy for the journey. She asked me something I didn’t understand:

F: You know I’m from England – that’s why I don’t really speak Spanish. I speak English instead.

Asha: You’re from England. Is that why your skin is verypale?

F: Yes – most English people have pale skin. It’s not very sunny there. Look, I’ve also got blue eyes.

A: Is that why you’ve got hairy arms?

F: Yes, I suppose so.

A: Like the chupacabras.*

*A Mexican monster which sucks the blood of its victims (usually goats) dry.

the chupacabras

chupacabras captured in action

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how bad is the drug violence?

Mexico used to get one or two mentions a month on the BBC news website. It now gets a couple of mentions every week – almost always pieces on the drug war. The amount of coverage is close to that for Pakistan. How bad is it in reality?

One of the first things I wondered when we arrived a month ago was whether this was reflected in daily life. Mexico has always had greater levels of violent crime than the UK. The houses in R’s parents neighbourhood for instance all have big gates and high walls, in some cases topped by electric fences. When driving in Mexico City it’s standard practice to lock car doors to stop someone grabbing something or jumping in when you stop at the lights.

I’ve heard enough horror stories from personal acquaintances to see that things are noticeably worse compared to when since I first started coming to Mexico with R in 2005. When we were in Guadalajara at the beginning of this year (Mexico’s 3rd city) R’s cousin said she’d been driving her five year old home when they’d come across the shot-up car of Guadalajara University’s rector, who’d been assassinated seconds before. She covered her son’s eyes as they passed by.

While we were there, another of R’s cousins got a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped her daughter and demanding money. As the daughter lives in Chicago, and such calls are not uncommon (scammers dial randomly to try and part people from their money – the Mexican equivalent of Nigerian 419 emails), it was clearly a hoax call, but nonetheless a very nasty one.

It’s hard to judge from anecdotes alone to what extent people are affected by the violence. National crime statistics were published last month and show a 28% annual increase in the murder rate up to August 2010. The jump in murders is hardly surprising given that the drug war has led to 30,000 reported deaths since it began in 2006. The war has brought not only killings and kidnappings but also a broader crime wave in some parts of the country. According to the same statistics burglaries rose by 5% per month nationally for instance.

It appears that this crime wave is closely linked to the activities of the cartels. The worst affected states are in the north and centre of the country where the cartels are largely based. Some areas of the south are also affected – notably the states of Tabasco and Quintana Roo which are on the main transportation route from Colombia. Chihuahua, which borders the US and houses city of hell Ciudad Juarez, is the worst affected – the murder rate increased at five times the national level this year.

The statistics show almost no change in Chiapas. From a personal point of view this is something of a relief because it shows the place we’ve come to live is reasonably secure. There is ongoing political violence however – R says a low intensity war – directed not only against the Zapatistas but indigenous communities and anyone else who gets in the way of the powers that be.

The extent to which people are afraid appears to vary significantly depending on where you are in the country. Clearly there are some places – mostly in the north, where all havoc has broken loose (see the entry below about Ciudad Mier near the US border). However, no-one I’ve talked to in San Cristobal is especially worried about this city, and the horror stories in the local papers are mainly about car crashes (with graphic photos to match).

In Mexico City things are different. I talked to some of our friends who said they weren’t worried – they said they don’t earn enough to be anyone’s particular target. R’s parents also live in Mexico City though and are clearly more anxious than before. As a result they spend more time out of the country than they used to.

Another friend in the capital told us how his father had recently received a late night call from a cousin who lives in Michoacan, a state in the centre of Mexico dominated by the La Familia cartel. The cousin said he needed to see the friend’s father urgently and would be driving through the night, to arrive in Mexico City in the morning. This immediately set the alarm bells ringing. The friend’s family know that people in the cousin’s village have family members in prison in the US, for trafficking offences. So why had the cousin left so suddenly and why was he driving through the night? Would he want to stay and what risk would that entail for all of them?

It turned out that the cousin had financial problems with the bank and needed to borrow a relatively small amount of money. But the instinct to fear the worst shows the indirect effects of the war even for those who aren’t directly affected. As anywhere it’s the fear of crime as much as crime itself that marks people.

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Ciudad Mier: from beauty spot to ghost town

I translated this from an article in the newspaper, partly for practice and partly because it’s both interesting and shocking.  It shows the government has effectively lost control of some parts of the country. To say that suggests that the war is between the state on one side and the cartels on the other. The reality is more complicated though – as the article implies, in Ciudad Mier the Zetas are on one side, the Gulf Cartel + army on the other. The poor townspeople are stuck in the middle. Ciudad Mier is next to the US border, and the far end of Mexico from where I am, in case you were wondering.

Ciudad Mier’s streets are deserted, its houses shot up and its police station burnt to the ground. A magical town has become a place without inhabitants, police, army or mayor: a place kidnapped by organised crime.

While the highways of the states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas have not been safe for some time, never before have their towns been abandoned nor Mexico’s northeast frontier with Texas so affected by violence. The corridor between the towns of Marín, Cerralvo and Miguel Alemán is empty. Few dare to use State Highway 54 these days; the army’s positions are deserted and the checkpoint at Kilometre 22 is abandoned.

In Mexico’s rural narcoviolencia, displaced populations are a new addition to the cast of victims of the war started by President Felipe Calderon. In Ciudad Mier, the shooting didn’t start last week when the population decided to flee to Miguel Aleman in search of a safe haven, it started on 16 February.

One of the workers at the town hall who decided to stay tells the story. “That was the day of the first shootings, followed by many more. Every day the bullets fly. I told my child they were fireworks. We lock ourselves in. What else can we do? We’ve been abandoned. They never sent soldiers or federal police – no-one pays any attention to us.”

The central square in Ciuded Mier, a town which until recently had 6,000 inhabitants, is empty. Alejandro Salinas, the square’s gardener, didn’t want to leave either. “Nearly everyone’s gone, including the mayor who’s moved to Rome, Texas. I’m frightened, even though almost nothing scares me. They came to the square and left five decapitated bodies without arms or legs. I saw them. Once you’ve seen something like that what can scare you?”

A pick up truck loaded with furniture and mattresses leaves the town. The exodus hasn’t stopped, says Juan Guerra, married with three daughters: “Those people are moving to Miguel Aleman. I refuse to leave. I’ve lived here 58 years and I’m not thinking of going. I don’t give a toss about one side or the other – I’m not leaving my house. It’s the only thing I own. I lock myself in with my wife and daughters. Too bad”.

The Gulf Cartel arrived a couple of months ago, attacking and killing the Zetas to get control of the local turf. The army also killed 30 alleged Zetas gunmen last September. But neither the soldiers or the Cartel have been able to wipe the Zetas out. On 15 November the Zetas kidnapped and killed four solders.

Both cartels patrol the town. Convoys of pick up trucks pass through the streets and nearby highways at high speed. The shops are shut. The police station was assaulted and burnt. Signs of the havoc are visible. Computers and archives lie strewn across the floor. The walls are covered in bullet holes. Most of the houses that surround the square have also been shot up.

“It’s so sad what we’re living through” says Blanca Garza, a local resident. “We’ve passed from the sound of mocking birds singing to the sound of gunfire. Our beautiful town has disappeared. I ask myself – how is it possible not to be frightened living here? The truth is I’m very afraid. I live between anguish and sighs. We’re the ones who have to live through Calderon’s war”.

9 miles on from Ciudad Mier along Highway 54 lies Miguel Aleman. Tyres block one of the entrances to the town. The local Lions Club has been made available for 300 people, though the number of refugees goes on rising.

“The saddest thing is that this is a refugee camp. Nothing more, nothing less. People have gathered here not only from Ciudad Mier but also from the villages of Peñitas, Guatepo, Canaleño, Las Auras, Malahuecos, El Troncón, San Carlitos, La Morita, and many more. People who are fleeing keep on arriving and are well received here. But there’s no talk of the others – the dead, the kidnapped, the disappeared. No one talks of them” says Jesus Barranco, in charge of bringing in supplies.

The shouts of children running around emphasise the sad faces of the displaced. “We ask ourselves when we will be able to go back. How will we know when we can leave? It’s like asking when I’m going to die. No-one can say. It’s the same thing. What was a contingency plan has become permanent. There need to be guarantees in Mier for the people to return, but at the moment there are none. They wanted to take everything over, and they’ve done it. If something isn’t done there will soon be many more Ciudad Miers in this country”.

Out on the highway to Peña Blanca in Tamaulipas state, in the direction of the Reynosa motorway, Don Eusebio sells grilled meat tacos. There’s no traffic on the route from Miguel Aleman, nor clients. “Here we’re living in fear, but yes, we work. I sell them tacos. A convoy just passed. Not the army nor the Zetas, but the other ones, from the Gulf Cartel” he says in a quiet voice. Indeed. On the dust track the convoy is coming back: eight pickup trucks and two all terrain vehicles travelling at high speed. The crew, wearing camouflage fatigues, hardly turn to look before the convoy disappears into the dust.

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