Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Are Canadians Safe in Mexico?

Over the past few weeks, there's been a minor "moral panic" regarding the safety of Canadian tourists in Mexico. Are tourists safe? Should Mexico be avoided?

A great deal of information about the current situation in Mexico can be gleaned from reading the Mexico City English language paper El Universal. The paper can be accessed online at and then looking for the title bar (1/3 of the way down) called Secciones. The second selection of this drop-down menu is the English language version of this paper.

Generally, Mexico is a safe country for tourists even though the level of violence is very high in some regions. The level of risk is no greater in Mexico when it is compared to other destination countries— including the United States. But even so, tourists should be aware of some important events. The homicide level is as much as 20 times higher than Canada's, but the fact is that the vast majority of these murders involve intranecine battles amongst the cartel members. But there is the possibility that this violence may spread beyond the cartels and drag in more Mexican citizens and possibly tourists.

First, there is currently a major crackdown aimed on drug-cartels. This involved the deployment of Mexican army personnel to a few regions of the country, and it involves major operations in the States of Michoacan, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua. There is a heavy army presence in the major cities and remote areas of those states. In some States (e.g. Sinaloa), army personnel have been murdered in cold-blood by narcosicarios (narco hitmen). In Acapulco, 7 police personnel were attacked and shot down in the past few days (Feb. 5 and 6th).

Second, President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa has authorized the extradition of several cartel leaders to the United States. These cartel leaders continued to give orders and run the cartels from within the Mexican prison system. The extradition was a controversial move because it appears to overstep the boundaries of constitutional law, and because there is a great fear in Mexico that the extradition will lead to the Colombianization of Mexico. Most Mexicans are very happy to have turned over the leaders of cartels to the Americans for prosecution of crimes they have been indicted for in the United States, but they are very concerned that this action will lead to a terrorist blow-back by the cartels in Mexico. When Colombia threatened to extradite cartel leaders (e.g. Pablo Escobar), the cartels in Medellin and Cali undertook a terrorist war targeting politicians and ordinary citizens in retaliation. Mexicans are worried that the cartels will imitate this Colombian response and escalate the violence— this time targeting ordinary people.

Furthermore, the removal of some cartel leaders to the USA has created a vacuum in leadership and there is power-struggle amongst the second-tier leaders. This is a brutal and nasty struggle, and there are many "ajustes de cuentas"— settling of accounts.

There is also a major repositioning amongst the competing cartels for "plaza" — turf. Acapulco is a major focus of these battles. In fact, the coastal area from Acapulco north to Ixtapa-Zihuatenjo has been the scene of some particularly grisly battles. Literally, there have been beheadings and torture that are on the scale of Iraq-Afghanistan horror.

Generally, Canadians are safe, but they should be aware that there is this backdrop of violence that is threatening to erupt. Unfortunately, Acapulco is one of the major battle grounds.

Travelers should look to the American sites for travel warnings and follow the advice given there.

On a different level, travelers should always be careful in taking taxis in the larger cities of Mexico. Ask the concierge at hotels to call a taxi from a "sitio" — a fixed taxi-stand or radio-dispatched site. At the major airports, use only the approved taxi services with offices in the airports. Never accept a taxi ride with someone who approaches you in the airport offering to give you a special fare.

People tend to let their guard down on vacation, and the best advice I can offer is to take the same precautions that you would take in any large city — including Toronto or Montreal. If you do this, you will have a safe and enjoyable vacation/trip in Mexico.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Epiphany: Feast of Three Kings in Mexico

Town appeals to three kings in festival
By David Agren/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

Martes 09 de enero de 2007
Eliseo Rojo, 70, has fished for tilapia and charales, a finger-size species, in the Laguna de Cajititlán since he was a teenager, although the father of 14 has seen better days

CAJITITLÁN, Jalisco - Eliseo Rojo, 70, has fished for tilapia and charales, a finger-size species, in the Laguna de Cajititlán since he was a teenager, although the father of 14 has seen better days.

He recalled fondly how he and his colleagues in the fishing village of Cajititlán, a town of approximately 8,000 residents near the Guadalajara airport, used to haul in tons of fish each day. A buyer from Toluca would come regularly for the catch. But nowadays the lake´s water level is around half its normal level and contamination from burgeoning development in the municipality of Tlajomulco is creeping in. On an average day, he now captures around 10 kilograms of fish.

"The lake used to have a lot more water. Lately, it´s been somewhat dry," he commented while waiting for passengers to climb into his boat, which was being used for sight-seeing tours last weekend. "There used to be a lot more fish."

Perhaps in search of divine intervention, the fishermen of Cajititlán took the three mesquite statues of the Santos Reyes (Holy Kings, or three wise men), the town´s patron saints, for a ride on Monday around the 5.5-square-mile lake. The tradition dates back to at least the 1930s in Cajititlán - and even further in Tlajomulco, where the first pastorelas, or live nativity plays, in colonial Mexico were performed in 1587.

But its not just the fishermen who appealed to the three kings.

Over the past nine days, pilgrims from across the region flocked to Cajititlán for the annual Día de los Reyes ("Three Kings´ Day") festivities. Some came to give thanks or receive a blessing; others to simply party or hawk products in the bustling market that filled the town´s main streets.

But the annual celebration - listed as the fourth biggest in Jalisco by local tourism officials - coincides with Jan. 6, the day most Mexicans cap off the Christmas season with family gatherings that include a rosca de reyes (the kings´ ring, a sweet bread) and giving toys to children.

Despite increased globalization and the importation of Santa Claus and Christmas trees, the Día de Reyes tradition is still strong in Mexico, and perhaps nowhere more than in Cajititlán.

"Cajititlán is the place where the tradition and the fiesta is concentrated," said José Hernández Martínez, a folk art historian at ITESO, a Jesuit university in suburban Guadalajara. According to Hernández, the Spanish introduced pastorelas as a means of evangelizing the indigenous population and found the reenactments to be highly effective.

"The images of the Santos Reyes have been well received in Mexico since the 16th century," he said.

Festivities in Cajititlán started in the 18th century and reputedly became notable in the early 1930s, when the statues of the kings suddenly surfaced after mysteriously disappearing. Rumors swirl as to how the ritual was performed, but no one knows for sure.

In the following decades, pilgrims converged on the town, making Cajititlán a major religious destination in Jalisco.

Salvador Alvarado, a former semi-pro soccer player from Guadalajara, journeys to Cajititlán every January. He broke his leg in three places seven years ago, but after asking for intervention, he recovered swiftly, something he attributed to the Santos Reyes.

"(Injuries) happened to other teammates ... but they didn´t end up doing very well," he recalled while sitting outside a tent he pitched next to the Santos Reyes parish.

"I had one operation and afterwards it was as if nothing had happened."

Despite the large number of religious pilgrims descending on Cajititlán, José Hernández Martínez said Día de los Reyes is "no longer a church holiday. It´s a civic holiday."

Octavio Pescador, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles concurred, adding, "There´s a sense of pluralism ... it´s a town event."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mel Gibson and Apocalypto

Earl Shorris is an astute observers of events in Mexico. He come closer to capturing the very soul of Mexico than any foreign observer since B. Traven's historical novels. In my personal view, his recent book ,"The Life and Times of Mexico", is the most comprehensive and astute English language book about post NAFTA Mexico.

His article about Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto can be found on the web at

Mad Mel and the Maya


[from the December 18, 2006 issue of the Nation]

On the Yucatán peninsula, where many of the Maya of Mexico live, there is an often-told story about people like Mel Gibson, whose bloody movie in the Yucatecan Maya language, Apocalypto, will be released December 8. I first heard the story from Miguel Angel May May, a tall man among the Maya, handsome, now in his 40s, with a touch of gray in his hair. He speaks Yucatecan Maya so eloquently that when young people who have begun to lose their language and culture first hear him, they shed tears for what has been and what can be in the Yucatán.

May May tells the story with the kind of rage and pride that Gibson tried to portray with his Scottish heroes in Braveheart and postapocalyptic picaros in Mad Max: "A Maya, of the middle class, like me," May May said, "went into a Ford dealership here in Mérida. He intended to buy a new pickup truck. He was well dressed, but clearly Maya. The dealer offered him ten pesos to wash a truck." It is a common experience for people of color in a white world. The Yucatán is not entirely a white world, yet the Maya suffer the most severe prejudice of any large ethnic group in Mexico. In the language of prejudice in Mexico, the Maya are said to be people with big heads and no brains, too short, too dark and with a strange, laughable Spanish accent. Gibson accepted the stereotype and embellished it.

To grasp what a racist act Gibson has committed in the making of his new film, it is necessary to understand the world of the Maya as it exists today. Perhaps realizing what has been done to the Maya in the film, Gibson has been seeking allies among Latinos and American Indians. He even went so far as to tell Time magazine, "The fear mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys."

In fact, Gibson stepped into a delicate cultural situation and may have shattered much of what has been built by indigenous people, historians and linguists in recent years. Ethnic prejudice is as harsh in the Yucatán as anywhere in the Americas. I have seen it played out in the Maya villages as well as in the cities and on the beaches. When the Clemente Course, which educates indigenous people as well as the poor in seven countries, taught its first class in the Maya language and humanities in the small village of San Antonio Sihó, the students told me that when they took the bus to Mérida (a journey of more than fifty miles) they were afraid to speak Maya, because people would think them stupid Indians (Mayeros). After two years of study, José Chim Kú, the student leader of the class, said, "Now, when I ride on the bus, I speak only Maya." It took two years for the faculty, including May May, to effect the change, for the Maya have internalized their recent history. And like all people who live in the violent mirror of racial and ethnic hatred, they suffer for their suffering. It is the bitterest irony of colonialism.

In the film Apocalypto, which Gibson claims will make the Maya language "cool again," there are many major roles. The lead is a lithe, handsome young man, a dancer from Oklahoma named Rudy Youngblood. He has indigenous ancestors, but he is not Maya, and like most of the other featured players he is not a professional actor. None of the four other major parts went to Maya either. According to Gibson, they are played by people from the United States, and the other featured players are either from Mexico City or Oaxaca. Yet every word spoken in the film is in Yucatecan Maya, a difficult language to learn or even to mimic, because it is both tonal and accented.

It is not as if Gibson had few Mayeros to choose from. There are more than a million Maya in Mexico, and more than 100,000 of them are monolingual Yucatecan Maya speakers. Yet Gibson chose not one Maya for a featured role. In so doing, he has made a film that reinforces the prejudice against the Maya, who have defended their cultural autonomy as fiercely as any people on earth. Twice they repulsed the Spaniard Francisco de Montejo, before he occupied part of the peninsula in 1527. They continued to fight pitched battles against European cultural and political dominance until the end of the Caste War in the early twentieth century. And even now militant organizations deep in the jungles of the state of Quintana Roo practice ancient rituals and resist Occidental cultural and political hegemony, including the Gregorian calendar. But the people have never been attacked by Hollywood.

Like the owners of the resort hotels that line the beautiful beaches of Cancún and Cozumel, Mel Gibson cast no Maya to work on his project, except in the most minor roles. Maya nationalists think the hotels and tourist packages that use the word "Maya" or "Mayaland" (a translation of Mayab) should pay for what they appropriate for their own use. The Maya patrimony, they say, is neither gold nor silver nor vast stretches of rich farmland; they have only their history, their culture, themselves. Like the hotel owners who bring strangers to the Yucatán to do everything but labor in the laundries and maintain the grounds, Gibson has brought in strangers to take the good parts from the Maya. He said in an interview that he chose people who "looked like you imagined they should," but I have seen photographs of Rudy Youngblood, and he does not look like any Maya I ever saw. One can only ascribe the choice of Youngblood and the other non-Maya to stereotypes that Gibson has adopted.

In casting and producing the film Gibson reinforced a colonialist concept of indigenous people that has long existed in Mexico. Ancient Maya culture was extraordinary, as the rest of the world now recognizes. The Maya invented one of the few original systems of phonetic writing (we are familiar with the Chinese system and the one that culminated in Latin script). They worked with the concept of zero long before it was known in Europe. They were superb astronomers. Their art and architecture are now known and studied throughout the world. It is also true that they were warriors and that they engaged in human sacrifice, although not on the grand scale of the Mexica. Their ability to manage large-scale military and civic works was impressive. Maya literature has a long and grand history, from the ancient words incised in stone through the Pop Wuj (Popol Vuh) and the postinvasion books of Chilam Balam to the eighteenth-century poems ("Kay Nicte"--Flower Song--and others) to contemporary works, including brilliant poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob in Yucatecan Maya and Humberto Ak'abal in Ki'che and Miguel Angel May May's delightful fables.

Culture doesn't sell tickets. Violence does. Gibson has made what he calls "a chase movie." As we saw his Scot disemboweled and his Jesus battered into bloody meat, we will now see a young Maya running through the jungle to escape having his still beating heart torn from his chest. The social philosophy of Jesus found no place in Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and the glory of Maya culture cannot be featured in a "chase movie." "Blood! More blood!" Gibson shouted during the filming.

According to the Maya calendar, the world will end in 2012, but there have already been four creations in the Maya vision of the cosmos, and there is no reason to think they do not expect another. For the title of his movie Gibson chose a Greek word related to the ideas in the Book of Revelation: apocalypse. Gibson has tried to sell the movie as an allegory, using the fall of Maya civilization to limn the war in Iraq. But it is not about Iraq, and the end of the Maya classic period took place many centuries before the period Gibson chose for his film. The only profound meaning one can take away from the film is that there is an intimate connection between racism and violence. The message of the production is that the Maya are unacceptable people; we do not want to look at them as they are now, and we despise them for what they were then.