Saturday, July 08, 2006

PHRASE of the WEEK: el robo hormiga

el robo hormiga

Mexican vernacular has many interesting terms and phrases describing electoral fraud.

In the days of PRI hegemony, fraudulent practises were described by many unique and colorful terms such as el carrusel (carousel) — the practise of making party regulars "go around" from polling station to polling station to vote several times for the PRI. Most forms of fraud were reduced— if not eradicated— by electoral reforms instituted by IFE (Mexico's Electoral Voting Institute).

However, one form of electoral "cheating" that's more difficult to control is called "robo hormiga"...or "the robbery by the ants". This is a wonderfully rich expression that probably came from the South of Mexico and Mayan traditions. Ants can take even the largest things away "tiny piece by tiny piece" as long as there are enough of them working together.

In terms of elections, "el robo hormiga" refers to the cumulative outcome when "a few missing ballots here...and a few missing ballots there" add up to a lot of uncounted votes at the end of the day. Many Mexicans believe that undercounting routinely happens in the more remote and isolated electoral polling stations among the 300 electoral districts (each has about 330,000 voters) . One reason that Mexican ballot boxes are "transparently clear plastic" is to provide visible assurance that all deposited ballots remain in the "box" and cannot been stolen by the ants in the "dark".

The electoral process in Mexico is modern and efficient, and there is absolutely no question that it does an excellent job in processing what "is there". But, like all empirical tools, it has a much more difficult time demonstrating "why something might not be there" and "what didn't happen". When something "disappears all at once", it's easier to trace than when there is a gradual dimishment.

The "ant" imagery is a metaphor that Mexicans, especially la gente de la tierra y los pobres, appreciate. One of the stories told about the conquest of Mexico is that several Mayan villages had the conquistadores on the run and at the point of defeat during their first incursions into the Yucatan. But the Mayan leaders and warriors decided that it was more important for them to go home because "flying ant season" had arrived. (See Thomas, Hugh. 1993. Conquest : Montezuma, Cortés, and the fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster)

Apocryphal or not, the story is a wonderful example of a Mexican viewpoint among those who have very little! What little is there, must be protected against even the most invisible of enemies. Visitors to Mexico are puzzled by the "strange custom" of painting the lower part of tree-trunks with a white coating, and don't realize that this is an ancient strategy of protecting the trees from being stripped by ants and other insects. It's necessary to be aware of the big threat, but it's even more important to guard against the small ones that produce a cumulative disaster.

The picture above was taken by Carlos Ramos and published in the July 8, 2006 edition of La Jornada online ( The caption on the photo read:
Andrés Manuel López Obrador al salir ayer de su casa de campaña en la colonia Roma. Su equipo de abogados acopia pruebas de las anomalías que ocurrieron en decenas de miles de casillas durante las elecciones del 2 de julio"
English Translation:"Andrés Manuel López Obrador leaving the campaign headquarters in Colonia Roma yesterday. His team of lawyers were gathering evidence of anomalies that took pace in dozens of polling stations during the elections of July 2"

The PRD continues to believe that hundreds of thousands of their votes have disappeared and have not been counted. Unfortunately, IFE's attempt to provide an open and transparent process may have unintentionally promoted the "robo hormiga" sentiment. As computer votes were posted in la madrugada of July 6, the PRD lead was nibbled away and became a loss. The end result appeared to be an electronic robo de hormiga.

The sign on the building behind AMLO uses the widely used crudity "pinche". This is a word that is hard to literally translate, but it is always used as a descritive adjective to "diminish the quality or worth" of an object. For instance, a Mexican might refer to his "pinche coche" if he wanted to describe his "shitty car" or with other slang workds like "friggin' rustbucket". Pinche is very widely used and is considered crude in polite circles.

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