SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 6th) — The return of liver cancer has afforded me an unexpected opportunity to contemplate the National Pastime.
As I emerged from a bout of chemotherapy in late September, the San Francisco Giants were locked in a neck-and-neck drawdown with the San Diego Padres for a post-season play-off spot and Baghdad-by-the-Bay was abuzz with pennant fever.
The Padres, who had dominated the National League West since the early days of the 2010 season, had suddenly plummeted into an unprecedented funk, at one point losing ten straight games in a row. Bare percentage points separated the two teams as they entered the final weekend of the pennant race with the local heroes only having to win one out of three games here at home.
They, of course, lost the first two and die-hards cringed that déjà vu was about to drop all over again. I have been a Giants fan since the day when the Polo Grounds, a misshapen stadium in upper Manhattan, was their chosen field of battle, and the scenario is an achingly familiar one for me.
Suddenly, the wind had been sucked out of the Giants’ pennant hopes. The orange “rally rags” that management distributes free of charge to the aficionados (it’s good for business) stopped twirling, altering wind currents over AT&T park. Those idiotic panda hats issued during the pre-season to hype the disappointing exploits of third baseman Pablo Sandoval AKA “Kung Fu Panda,” lay dormant splayed upon the scalps of the fanaticos. No one “Feared the Beards,” the fake whiskers that transform mild-mannered fans into facsimile Mad Bombers and remind the opposition that ace reliever Brian Wilson would soon be on the mound to rescue the locals. No kind of mumbo jumbo seemed to snap the Giants out of their trance.
I saw the first hand-scrawled signs during the late innings of the Friday night series opener. As usual, the Giants had been unable to put two hits together and were deep in the hole in yet another nail-biter with the Padres. Two young people of indeterminate sex squatted down by the first base boxes to display their homemade handiwork. The wording, as best as I can remember, underscored that it was “torture” to be a Giants’ fan these days.
“Did you see that?” I turned aghast to my fellow couch surfer, the notorious peoples’ lawyer Dennis Cunningham. Dennis, who of late has been trying to prevent the feds from destroying fragments from the bomb that blew up Judi Bari and her Earth First! comrade Daryl Cheney in 1990, reasoning that that the threatened disappearance of the evidence would absolve the FBI of complicity in the matter, was similarly provoked.
Let me delineate the reasons for our dismay. Torture, in my dictionary, means the egregious and prolonged physical abuse governments inflict upon those they suspect of harboring information detrimental to their interests. When I speak of torture, I mean Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, CIO “black sites” — not an afternoon outing at Pac Bell Park.
When I speak out against torture, I mean waterboarding, having your fingernails pulled out one by one and your scrotum sliced by a razor, electrical currents shoved up your anus, extreme sensory deprivation — not having to endure a close shave out at the old ballgame.
When I speak out against torture, I think of the unending agony the Israelis inflict upon the Palestinian people, the castration of those who marched with Monsignor Romero, Victor Jara’s skull being shattered on the soccer stadium steps in Santiago — not Buster Posey and the “tools of ignorance.”
As the weekend progressed and the Giants continued to lose impossibly low-scoring games, the “Torture” syndrome gained increasing currency. Legions of Giants fans were now showing up to wave signs spotlighting the torture motif. Now the offending word was spelled out in Giants’ colors and decorated with hearts and care bears. Both the Chronicle and the Examiner (free — and worth every penny of it) were running the T-word in their leads.
The kicker was a phone call from an old friend who has marched through this city for years decrying torture, injustice, and imperialist occupations. “It’s torture to be a Giants fan,” she chirped merrily. I just about did a Mike Tyson and bit her ear off to reciprocate.
The mindless drumbeat mounted last weekend at AT&T Park trivializes torture, transforming horrendous crimes against humanity into a sports slogan to be inserted somewhere between the Stars Spangled Banner and God Bless America and further converting professional sports into a willing shill for U.S. domination of the Planet Earth. First and foremost, baseball is a business and I expect torture will soon be deployed to sell everything from beer and sushi to seasons’ tickets. The possibilities are depressingly endless.
“FANS JUMP ON THE TORTURE BANDWAGON,” the Morning Chron, about the poorest excuse for a daily newspaper in this benighted land, headlines this morning (Weds. Oct. 6th), guaranteeing that torture will be a part of the Giants’ sales pitch as they enter the second round of the play-offs. Perhaps my illness has magnified the malaise but this past weekend’s low-jinks seem to underscore the premise with which I launched this screed: Torture is indeed the new national pastime.
John Ross, author of “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City,” will be covering the new national pastime while recuperating from chemotherapy.
MEXICO CITY (June 11th) — The Caliente Sports Book down the street is buzzing with betters studying dog and horse races, Major League Baseball, even golf, on the multiple screens. Of particular interest are those channels running wrap-ups of the afternoon match between Mexico and 2006 World Cup champion Italy, from which the national team emerged victorious in a final prelim before this year’s edition of the Copa del Mundo gets underway later this week.
Italy, it may be remembered, won the much-coveted cup four years ago on penalty kicks after France was reduced to playing with ten men on the field when super-star Zenedine Zidane was disqualified for ferociously head-butting a rival who purportedly called his mother and sister “whores.” Beating Italy was a decided plus for Mexico’s downtrodden spirits as the Mundiales approach.
One group of aficionados was not much interested in Mexico’s fortunes in the upcoming fandango in South Africa. Instead, they gathered around a big screen in one corner of the betting parlor cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers in a National Basketball Association Finals match-up with the Boston Celtics. “Forget about football,” sneered “El Guerro” Gonzalez, a regular, “this is where the real money gets made.” Because pro basketball games routinely rack up hundred-point scores, betters have multiple opportunities to wager on winners and losers, over and under point spreads, total points in a quarter, and whether Kobe Bryant will hit the next three-pointer.
But the basketball euphoria will dissipate post haste as the World Cup takes center stage. Although the NBA’s despotic commissioner David Stern promotes his product as the world game, basketball hardly holds a candle to what the U.S. provincially terms “soccer” and the rest of the Planet Earth calls football.
Indeed, the “Copa del Mundo” (“Cup of the World”) will soon sweep every other sporting event from the screens — let alone political scandal, of which there is plenty in this distant neighbor nation, including the upcoming Super Sunday gubernatorial elections July 4th, and even droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. The interminable drug war that has taken 23,000 lives in the past three years will move to the backburner. Ditto an economy that is tailspinning out of control — a million workers lost their jobs in the first three months of this year alone despite President Felipe Calderon’s rosy claims of “recovery.”
Speculation about the disappearance of one of the nation’s most powerful politicians will fade from the primetime news, and the first year anniversary of the incineration of 49 babies in a government-run day care center owned in part by the first lady’s cousin will not even be noticed. The military takeover of the great Cananea copper mine and the dissolution of the miners union, is not news. New revolutions — this is, after all, the hundredth year anniversary of our landmark revolution — could rock the land, but for the next month, Mexico will live and die on what happens to the national team in South Africa. “In football, we find our revenge against the adversaries of our lives,” philosophizes sociologist Jose Maria Candia in a recent Contralinea magazine interview, “if it goes badly at work, in the economy, politics, the project of the nation, when 11 boys put on the green jersey and do well in an international tournament, we feel vindicated by life.” With 32 national teams from all five continents in the competition for the World Cup, the fate of the “seleccion” will have palpable impact on domestic tranquility. The political outfall of the Mundiales is unpredictable. Pumped up on toxic nationalism and xenophobia, football is a blood sport in southern climes. Honduras and El Salvador once fought a full-fledged war over soccer.
If the national team wins or acquits itself well, success will strengthen the government in charge no matter how poorly it has served the country. Likewise, a shoddy performance can topple rulers. In Mexico, increasingly unpopular president Felipe Calderon, who won high office in fraud-marred elections three years ago, is banking on the national selection’s triumphs in the opening round to invigorate his deteriorating image. Calderon’s bet is hardly a sure thing.
Mexico, Number 17 on the Federation of World Football Federation’s rankings (now the Coca Cola FIFA rankings), plays host South Africa in the inaugural match of the tournament, and “His Excellency” Felipe Calderon (dixit South African president Jacob Zuma) will be a guest of honor. The “Bafana Bafana” (“Boys Boys”) as the locals are worshipped, have won their last four prelim matches and in the 2009 Confederation Cup took Spain, which some football gurus fix as the best team in the world, into overtime. Their fanatics’ incessantly droning “vuvazelas” or plastic trumpets are said to drive opponents mad.
On the other hand, should Mexico beat sentimental favorite South Africa, it will make Calderon few friends on the African continent — five other African teams are in the draw, with war-torn Cote d’Ivoire the cream of the crop.
Aside from the Bafana Bafana, France and Uruguay are the real class of Mexico’s four-team group — while the French have appeared lackadaisical of late, whipping the South Americans is improbable. Anything less than reaching the quarterfinals will not rehabilitate Calderon’s popularity.
Mexico has a young team that fluctuates between indifference and playing out of control. It is anchored by seven Mexican players from the European and Turkish leagues, and the wily but slow-footed veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Burned repeatedly by the national team’s poor performances in the Mundiales, many fans such as Manuel Garcia, a waiter at the old quarter Mexico City eatery Café La Blanca, consider that only divine intervention can save Mexico — and Calderon — from ignominious elimination.
When and if Mexico wins its matches though, wild celebrations are guaranteed to erupt around the gilded Angel of Independence on the bustling Paseo de Reforma — drunkenness, fisticuffs, and hooliganism are de rigor. Flag-draped caravans of honking cars will jam the boulevards of this conflictive megalopolis. On game days, half the population of Mexico, led by its president, will don green jerseys and play hooky from work and school. Saloons will fill to the brim with fans spilling out into the streets, jostling for a peek at the plasma screens. Masses to insure that God is on Mexico’s side will be pronounced from the altars and saints dressed up in the national colors.
Although football is tantamount to religion in this country where 70% of the population lives in and around the poverty line, only the super rich will have the wherewithal to jet off to Africa. Instead, the underclass will monitor the Mundiales at the “FIFA Fan Fest” on giant screens erected in the great Zocalo plaza from which nearly a hundred hunger-striking members of the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME), near death after a month of voluntary starvation, will no doubt be evicted so as not to dampen the fiesta.
Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, which will transmit the games (the premium package includes 3-D) will have the nation eating out of its hands (and guzzling Corona beer.) The TV monoliths have leased rights to broadcast the Mundiales from the Swiss-based FIFA, the absolute dictator of the sport for the past 106 years that counts 204 out of 208 football federations worldwide on its roster. FIFA TV revenues are expected to top $167,000,000 for the 2010 World Cup.
This year’s Copa del Mundo is awash with drama. Will the Argentine selection, a perennial favorite, graced by the world’s best player, Leonel “the Flea” Messi, blow up under their sometimes psychotic coach Diego Maradona, himself a Mundiales’ immortal? Will the first round match between England and the U.S. (14th on the FIFA listings with a world-class star, Landon Donovan, to prove it) invoke the star-crossed Yanqui upset of the Brits 60 years ago in 1950 in Brazil, the only time these two teams have ever met in the World Cup?
If the U.S. gets by England, a match between Mexico and its hated gringo rival would up the drama quotient here considerably. A face-off between South Korea and North Korea, both of which are in the draw albeit in separate groups, could lead to nuclear confrontation.
How will tiny, bruised Honduras, which played through a coup d’etat to qualify, fare against the big guns? What kind of karmic reward is in store for France, which slimed its way into the World Cup with mega-star Thierry Henry’s illegal hand-slap goal against the Irish? Will Germany be dispirited by the suicide of its troubled veteran goalie (is this a Wim Wenders’ film)? Will five-time champ Brazil, which is hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, be so overloaded with hubris that the selection will forget to play football?
But unquestionably the drama of dramas is focused on host South Africa, the land of blood and gold, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Joe Slovo, and the last great struggle for liberation from colonialism.
South Africa, an unlikely site for the World Cup, was promised the games by Swiss football impresario Joseph Batter during his 1998 campaign to become the czar of the FIFA. Blatter, who was said to have been backed by Middle East oil money, needed African votes to put him over the top. Although Nigeria and Morocco were also proposed to host the 2010 Cup, South Africa, the continent’s fastest-growing economy, was chosen both as a tribute to African football and to Nelson Mandela. Blatter even flew the frail, aging apostle of African liberation, to London to ballyhoo the designation. Whether the beloved Mandiba will be well enough to attend the inauguration is the drama within the drama.
In his youth, Nelson Mandela was a keen amateur boxer and enthusiasm for sports has colored his life. Football is indeed the national sport of black South Africans, 75% of the population. During Mandela’s 28 years of imprisonment on Robbin Island for the crime of defying apartheid, his fellow prisoners and comrades in the African National Congress (ANC), played football incessantly, taping up rags into balls, and booting them up and down the narrow prison corridors. But Madiba was held in isolation and could never participate.
Nelson Mandela’s vision for the new South Africa encompassed sports as a path to racial reconciliation. If football was a black sport in South Africa, rugby is an Afrikaner obsession — the Springboks were the maximum icon of the apartheid regime. As president, Mandela brought the 1995 World Rugby Cup to Johannesburg, a story fictionalized in the film “Invictus,” and won the hearts and minds of his former persecutors. Now the World Cup 2010 is slated to project South Africa before the world as a dynamic, multi-racial powerhouse.
The truth is always more diffuse. Jacob Zuma, the country’s very corruptible third president, and his predecessors have sunk between $3.7 and $6 billion USD in infrastructure to burnish their images in a nation where 43% of South Africa’s 45.000.000 peoples live on $2 or less a day. The gleaming $300,000,000 Soccer City Stadium where the July 11th finals will be staged, abuts Soweto, the festering high-crime enclave of 3,000,000 mostly threadbare citizens, 30% of whom suffer from AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Gangs of orphaned children rule the street.
Similarly, the stadium at Port Elizabeth on Nelson Mandela Bay, which came in at $287,000,000, was built over a slum from which hundreds were evicted. A school complex was demolished to make way for the Neusprot venue (only $140,000,000) — 13 such stadiums have risen from the dust amidst a storm of charges of kickbacks, bribery, and favoritism. If recent history is any hint, the new stadiums will quickly become certifiable white elephants. Even Beijing’s much-praised “Birds’ Nest” coliseum designed for the 2008 Olympics is reportedly tenantless, and the Greek economy just collapsed in part thanks to the burden of debt incurred for infrastructure for its Olympic Games.
With a population scuffling just to feed itself, filling all this dazzling stadia with paying customers is problematic. Even the $18 cheap seats — a week’s wages in the cities and a month’s income in some rural areas — are mostly out of reach in a country where 50% of the work force is out of work. To deflect a grave social crisis in the making, the FIFA is offering 120,000 free admissions, about 2,200 seats for each of the World Cup’s 62 contests. Riots have already occurred at “friendly” preliminary games.
Ever since the bad old days of ancient Rome, bread and circuses have been a powerful formula for social control. In South Africa, as in Mexico, the World Cup is designed to make the discontented forget their discontent. For the next month, the violence, corruption, and class and race hatreds that dominate daily life in Mexico, South Africa, and the rest of what used to be called the third world will disappear beneath the social surface.
Although conflict is my bread and butter, I’m not going to miss the 2010 Mundiales for the world.
John Ross is at home in the maw of the Monstruo watching the World Cup. You can complain to him at email@example.com
MEXICO CITY (June 3rd) — The turtles of Caribbean Mexico are an ancient race. Their ancestors paddled with dinosaurs and prehistoric fish. Kemp’s Ridley turtles were burying their eggs in Gulf Coast sanctuaries countless millennia before the Olmecs, Mexico’s matrix civilization, installed their mysterious giant heads on the Veracruz plain. The presence of turtles in indigenous iconography is evidenced by artifacts displayed in anthropological museums in Mexico City and Jalapa Veracruz. The 20th Century naturalists recorded “arribos” (“arrivals”) of tens of thousands of Kemp’s Ridley females at Rancho Nuevo beach Tamaulipas; with few exceptions, Kemp’s Ridleys (named for an amateur turtle-ologist and the smallest and rarest of all sea turtles) nest only at Rancho Nuevo and Padre Island, Texas.
But for Gulf waters, turtles are like canaries in the coalmines. The 1979 blowout of Ixtoc 1, a Mexican National Petroleum Company (PEMEX) platform off the southern state of Tabasco, gushed uncontrollably for nine months. Some 3,000,000 barrels spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling beaches and nesting grounds. The Rancho Nuevo arribos shrank below 4,000. Although Mexican Kemp’s Ridleys have staged a modest comeback (the population is now calculated at 8,000), the April 20th explosion of a British Petroleum deep-sea drilling rig on the Macondo Prospect (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez) 130 miles southeast of New Orleans could spell doomsday for these primordial creatures.
Across the Gulf, Mexican authorities are watching this travesty unfold with furrowed brows. The blow-out of the Deepwater Horizon platform that killed 11 and wounded 17 workers is now the largest oil spill in U.S. history, almost doubling the size of the Exxon Valdez fiasco in Alaskan waters (10,000,000 gallons) and threatening biblical devastation of Caribbean wildlife from Mexico to Cuba. Already, Gulf Coast fishing grounds have been shut down, shrimp and oyster beds contaminated, colonies of marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees are menaced, and bird life, particularly brown pelicans, is at extreme risk. In just the first 20 days of the catastrophe, 156 dead Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles were counted.
The good news — at least for Mexico — is that deep-water oil plumes have been caught up in loop currents that threaten environmental mayhem as far east as the Florida Keys and Communist Cuba, but will not touch home. The bad news is that, come August, when the hurricane season blows in (2010 is being touted as a record year for tropical hurricanes with 15 giant storms headed for the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico), those currents will shift dramatically south towards Mexico. Even now, deep water “cyclones” are sweeping gobs of oil towards Veracruz and Tamaulipas turtle breeding grounds, and Mexico’s environmental secretary, Rafael Elvira, is preparing to file suit against BP, whose $325 billion earnings in 2009 is larger than Mexico’s total annual budget.
BP efforts to plug the leak with everything from old tires to tons of mud, robot submarines and never-before-tested “domes” have met with serial failure. A slant drill to relieve pressure on the undersea gusher will not be in place until August, when the currents turn towards Mexico. Kemp’s Ridleys nest from April through August.
President Felipe Calderon’s brow is further corrugated by the prospect that the mammoth BP spill will torpedo his pledge to privatize (he calls it “modernize”) both Mexico’s oil industry and PEMEX, the national petroleum consortium. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, a joint venture between BP, Halliburton, and TransOcean (controlled by a Swiss holding company), has certainly slowed, if not slain, Calderon’s plans to contract similar transnationals for deep sea drilling in Mexico’s slice of the Gulf.
According to U.S. Department of Energy evaluations, Mexico has only nine years of proven reserves left before it becomes a net oil importer. Major offshore wells like Cantarell in the Sound of Campeche are played out, and no new land-based deposits have been located. Rummaging through the remains of the old Chicontepec field in Veracruz (Halliburton is an important subcontractor) has yielded meager results.
One joke making the rounds has Calderon delighted by the BP spill, because it will bring more oil to Mexican waters.
In the vision of Big Oil, Mexico’s only hope for economic survival lies in its “aguas profundas,” or deep waters, five miles down in the Gulf. Of course, only Big Oil has the technology to get at these riches. According to the transnationals, PEMEX must be reformed and partner up with them (“an association of capitals”) for a percentage of the take. So-called risk contracts are currently barred by the Mexican Constitution.
Following orders from his backers (Halliburton, the number one PEMEX subcontractor, was a generous contributor to Calderon’s fraud-tarred 2006 election victory), the Mexican president submitted “energy reform” legislation to Congress in 2008 that laid out a “strategic alliance” with Big Oil and “flexibilization” of PEMEX opening the state company to private investment and risk contracts. The Calderon media machine cranked up an infomercial campaign depicting an azure Caribbean under which Mexico’s true wealth lay buried. “The Treasure of Mexico” was repeatedly shown at prime time on this distant neighbor nation’s two-headed television monopoly, Televisa and TV Azteca.
Mexico is fast running out of oil, the president warned to make his point. Deep sea drilling is the only option. “Energy reform” was put on congressional fast track.
By seeking to privatize Mexico’s petroleum industry, Felipe Calderon is swimming against global currents. World-class producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia are consolidating their state-run oil companies, Glasprom and Aramco, rather than selling them off to the private sector.
Petroleum is a volatile liquid in the Mexican mix. Oil and sovereignty have been joined at the hip ever since depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas expropriated and nationalized the industry in 1938 from Anglo and American owners — the so-called Seven Sisters — when they defied the Mexican Supreme Court during an oil workers’ strike. Those opposed to Calderon’s scheme went into hullabaloo mode to push back his privatization legislation.
Ex-left presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from whom many Mexicans believe Calderon stole the 2006 election, organized his social base and the “Adelitas,” women partisans dressed up as “soldaderas” or female fighters in the Mexican revolution, donned sombreros and long skirts, toy carbines and bandaleros of fake bullets crisscrossed across their breasts, and encircled the Mexican Senate. Inside both houses of congress, Lopez Obrador’s colleagues seized the podiums and paralyzed all legislative activity for ten days.
The stand-off resulted in a series of nationally televised debates over the next four months during which energy experts, academics, Big Oil reps, PEMEX honchos, lawyers, leftists, senators, deputies, impresarios, and even a poet or two argued about the privatization proposal. The debates were carried live on a big screen in the great Zocalo plaza, where hundreds of outraged citizens gathered every afternoon to cuss out the privatizers.
By autumn 2008, a compromise was struck between Calderon’s PAN party and the former ruling PRI, which still holds a majority in both houses. Anti-Lopez Obrador elements within the left-center PRD also signed off on the deal, which delineated hundreds of exploration tracts in Mexican deep sea waters, but put a hold on transnational participation and risk contracts. The compromise did not please the transnationals, but Calderon okayed it reluctantly and was preparing fresh legislation to assuage their concerns when the Deepwater Horizon blew out at the bottom of the Gulf, putting the kibosh on Big Oil’s pipedreams.
The struggle to stop the privatization of PEMEX is symbolic and illusory. Thirty one out of the company’s 41 divisions are, in effect, subcontracted out to the likes of BP and Halliburton; most contracts are concentrated in the PEP or exploration and perforation sector. Ironically, players like BP, the biggest producer in the Gulf of Mexico today, and Shell are reincarnations of British interests that dominated petroleum production in Veracruz before expropriation — Royal Dutch Shell evolved from Lord Cowdry’s (Weetman Pierson) Aguila Oil. Moreover, Exxon is reported to be dickering for BP (which now incorporates Amoco and Atlantic-Richfield), a merger that would restore John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil taken down by trustbusters in 1911. Standard Oil’s James Doheny and Pierson ruled Mexican oilfields before 1938, and once threatened to secede and form their own “Republic of The Gulf of Mexico.”
The U.S. and Mexico dispute a pair of potentially abundant fields in the deep waters of the Gulf. Designated “Donas,” the eastern polygon is triangulated between the Yucatan, New Orleans, and Cuba. The much-larger (16,000 square kilometers) western polygon sits between Tamaulipas and Texas. Mexico’s share of the western “Dona” (62%) purportedly holds up to 34,000,000,000 barrels, twice current reserves.
Preliminary delineation of the Donas was agreed upon by Washington and Mexico City in 2000, and deep-sea drilling is set to begin as early as next year. Chevron and Shell have reportedly already won contracts to work the U.S. sites. But Mexico does not have the technology to get at its “treasure” and Houston oil guru George Baker confirms that it will be another decade before PEMEX comes into possession of the tools to drill baby drill at such depths.
Advocates for continued state control of Mexico’s oil like Professor Fabio Barbosa of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) rebut the claim that PEMEX cannot drill deep, citing development of the Nab platform in mile-deep waters off Yucatan (the Dona reserves are thought to be three to five miles down in the Gulf.)
In a recent El Universal op-ed, Barbosa recalled then-BP vice president Cris Sladen’s warning to a 2006 oil conference in Veracruz that Mexico would go belly-up if it didn’t dissolve PEMEX and let the latest version of the Seven Sisters handle the deep sea exploration and drilling.
Closer to the bottom of the food chain, the voices of the turtles are not heard in this debate between privatizers and nationalists. Deep sea drilling presages unprecedented carnage for their already exhausted species. BP itself has an unblemished record of species genocide — its Arctic projects threaten protected bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea and a 900,000 gallon spill in Prudhoe Bay in 2000 plus its plans to trash the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge put dozens of species, from Polar bears and caribou to the Arctic tern, the longest-flying migratory bird on Planet Earth, on the brink of extinction.
In an exhibition of unbridled cynicism, BP greenwashes its tarnished image with full-page New York Times professions of its concern for the environment and by handing out conservation awards and grants. So far as is known, no Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle has ever won one.
The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest liken the American continent to the back of a turtle — humans are allowed to live on it but must do so in harmony with the planet. “Turtle Island” is the translation of the name of the place where we live in several Indian languages, a designation that once lent its name to Gary Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poems imploring environmental respect and salvation.
But the poet’s metaphors do not carry much weight in the boardroom. BP and its cronies in corporate crime and capitalist greed have put Turtle Island at the top of their hit list.
John Ross is back in “El Monstruo,” the title of his latest cult classic (“pulsating and gritty” the NY Post) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
SANTA CRUZ TANACO (May 20th) – When I first settled into this tiny Purepecha Indian village high in the Meseta Tarasca of west-central Michoacan state 50 years ago, few women tilled the land. Tending the “milpa” (corn patch) was strictly a man’s work. The men ploughed the fields and planted in the spring and the wives and daughters would help to weed (“barbechar”) and glean in the harvest — but it was the men who strapped on the “tchundi” basket as they moved up and down the rows, snapping off the big ears of maiz to be sold in the markets of neighboring cities.
While the men lorded it over the corn patch, women had dominion over the home and the children. They cared for the kids and the chickens and prepared the meals. At mid-day, they wrapped up fresh, warm tortillas in colorful “servietas” and carried them out to the fields to feed their husbands.
Only two women in Tanaco actually worked their own “parcelas” (plots.) Dona Teresa Garcia had a handful of fields scattered up and down the valley she had inherited from her murdered husband and many sons to work them, and although she was known to get her hands dirty, she was more an overseer and administrator.
Slight and sprightly, Tere delighted in a full storehouse and was proudest of her purple and red and blue pinto corn she grew from her cache of grandfather seeds.
Nana Eloisa, on the other hand, was a mountain of a woman who ploughed the rocky valley soil at the foot of volcanic mountains and lush pine forests — when she didn’t have an ox or the wherewithal to rent one, Eloisa was known to harness up the plough and pull it herself. Nana Eloisa had no husband although men sometimes hid in her long serge skirts. Unlike Dona Teresa, who preferred to negotiate off stage with the men who ruled the community, Eloisa, who was equipped with a stentorian voice, often spoke up at assemblies of the “comuneros” (indigenous landholders.) The neighbors talked about her in awed whispers.
Times have changed up in the Meseta — and changed again. In the 1980s, as the first of five neo-liberal regimes took hold far away in Mexico City, the Purepechas — who never strayed far from the Meseta, unlike their mestizo neighbors in Tangancicuaro and Gomez Farias who first began trekking north a hundred years ago — plunged into the immigration stream with a vengeance. Fathers and sons went off to find their fortunes in El Norte and many never came back.
The women were left in charge of the house and the milpa both, a double workday (“doble jornada.”) Their husbands would send home the “remisas” (money orders) with instructions on where and how much corn to plant. Any cash left over was destined to pay off loans for the “coyotes” who charged thousands of pesos to get the men across the border.
Often the women would hire “peones” and “jornaleros” to do the fieldwork, but others worked the milpas on their own. Gradually the women began to make their own decisions about their husbands’ land. Many stepped out of the traditional long Purepecha skirts and literally and figuratively put on the “pantalones.”
There are more women than men in Mexico 53,000,000 to 50,000,000, according to the 2005 half census. Although many are still tied to the home, women now comprise 40% of the workforce.
In the rural sector where 28% of the population continues to subsist, the stats are even more skewed. One estimate is that 18 million women are now the primary workers on the land — but only 4.5 million actually have title to it. Title allows them membership and voice and vote in the ejido (villages that are designated rural production units) and community, access to agricultural credits, and full agrarian rights. But women landholders are often relegated to servant stature in the ejido assemblies where only 2.5% serve as officials of the 28,000 communal farms so designated by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Although many women farmers or “campesinas” join mixed gender farmers organizations like the PRI party-run National Confederation of Campesinos (CNC) or the more left UNORCA and El Barzan, the dismaying disparity in their recognition as producers have motivated the women to form their own groupings such as the Ecological Campesinas of the Sierra of Petatlan Guerrero and the CONOC (National Council of Women Farmers’ Organizations.)
But whether within the male-dominated farmers centrals or those of their own making, equal recognition has been slow in coming for the campesinas. Although agricultural budgets put together by the Secretary of Agriculture (SAGARPA) and the Secretary of Social Development (SEDESO) appear to allocate 42% of their resources to women, the numbers are deceiving – most of the money designated for women farmers is assistencial aid drawn down from the “Oportunidades” poverty program.
Other monies are assigned to crafts collectives such as the ceramicists of Ocumicho just over the mountain from Tanaco, where the women throw the much-in-demand pots and the men bring the wood to keep the ovens fired up. Funds for micro-projects such as keeping chickens are available to women farmers but as Blanca Rubio writes in the left daily La Jornada, the campesinas would rather be recognized as producers of maiz than for their ancillary talents.
In addition to the gender of farming, the gender of out-migration from feeder states like Michoacan, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and more indigenous Chiapas and Oaxaca, has changed radically. Once upon a time only men headed for El Norte and the potentially mortal consequences of this dangerous migration but womens’ numbers in the flow north have tripled in the last decade as neo-liberal agrarian policies imposed from Mexico City have devastated the “campo” and the bottom has fallen out of Mexican agriculture.
Under presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo (1988-2000), the Constitution was mutilated to allow the privatization of communally-held land, grain distribution was handed over to transnationals like the Cargill Corporation, guaranteed prices were scrapped, and credit for poor farmers dried up. Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon (2000-2010), presidents chosen from the right-wing PAN party, have hastened the demise of the agricultural sector.
The coffin nail was the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Every year since, millions of tons of cheap U.S. and Canadian corn swamp Mexico forcing small-hold campesinos and campesinas out of business. A Carnegie Endowment investigation into the impacts of NAFTA on poor Mexican farmers published on the tenth anniversary of the trade treaty calculated that 1.8 million farmers had abandoned their milpas in NAFTA’s first decade – since each farm family represents five Mexicans, the real number of expulsees comes in close to 10,000,000, at least half of them women.
One consequence is that women now swim in the migration stream in dramatically increased numbers. Sisters follow their brothers north and wives their husbands, leaving the children at home with the grandmothers. A third of the households in Tanaco and just down the valley in Cucucho have no mother or father at home.
For those women who stay behind, lifestyles have changed. Families have abandoned or sold off their milpas and the remisas from El Norte (which decreased 20% in recession-ridden 2009) are now invested in building up the house, laying cement floors and hooking up electricity lines. Women open “changaros,” storefronts where they sell knicknacks and snacks to their neighbors.
Women farmers who still till their parcelas now have to work a triple workday (“triple Jornada”) just to make ends meet, finding jobs outside of the community as domestics or factory workers, taking care of the house and the kids and the chickens, and tending to the milpa. When the husbands do come home, the once rigidly defined roles of men and women in the Mexican countryside have been irreversibly altered. Men are not the sole breadwinners now and decisions must be taken together. Left to their own devices to survive, the campesinas have become empowered. They have feminized agriculture.
The feminization of the Mexican campo is a bright light in a dismal prospectus, thinks the much-respected agrarian analyst Armando Bartra. Gender articulates how farmers approach the land, Bartra writes. Men wrest the crops from the soil. They plant to achieve bigger and better harvests and resort to chemical fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified seed to speed up the bounty. They pin their hopes on the market, Bartra underscores, “and the market has no future” for small farmers.
By way of contrast, women are more in sync with the land. They don’t till the soil for profit as much as to keep their families well nourished. They are commited to auto-sufficiency first and do not poison the land upon which they grow their family’s food with chemicals. The feminization of farming, Bartra concludes, is “the only salvation for Mexican agriculture.”
John Ross has returned to El Monstruo (Mexico City), the title of his most recent volume “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” and the most contaminated, crime-ridden, corrupt, and conflictive megalopolis in the Americas.
Editors note: John Ross is finishing up a book tour across the United States, and sending us his impressions of Obamalandia. You can read some of his previous posts here, here and here.
The Amtrak rumbles into the back end of Baltimore past block after block of abandoned, boarded-up row houses ripe for burning. This city of such magnificent renegades as Edgar Allen Poe, John Wilkes Booth, and Billie Holliday is mapped by grimy pocket ghettoes that made Baltimore a perfect stage-set for “The Wire.” When contrasted against the gleaming, refurbished downtown, these crime-scene neighborhoods incubate urban uprising. Red Emma’s is one of a skein of anarcho bookstores with names like Sedition, Monkeywrench, and Bluestockings that have welcomed me on this grueling odyssey across the underbelly of Obamalandia. I’m enlivened by the energies these oases exude. Contemporary anarchists seem to have little time for the crippling ideological jousting that drained the lifeblood of my generation. Those bad old days of Marxist Leninist Maoist Trotskyist Stalinesque backbiting seem an absurd nightmare on the barricades of change these days.
Tiffany, a tenor saxophonist who day gigs at OSHA over in D.C. and puts in after hours at the bookstore-cafe, and I pitch in to unload a busload of Bread & Puppet props for a zany, Zen show at a cavernous performance space Red Emma’s maintains in a vacated church. I get to trundle in the head of Ben Franklin, the villain in B&P’s latest mini-extravaganza in which $100 bills are the most pertinent puppets. A half century after its founding even before Vietnam caught fire, the puppeteers are still serving bread and aoeli to grateful audiences.
In D.C., I speak at the Institute for Policy Studies, a perennial leftist sounding board four blocks north of the White House and a billion light years from power, about how Washington has hooked Mexico on drug war. It is my first visit to the nation’s capitol with a black president in residence in the house that slaves once built. The Capo de Tutti Capos of the most grotesque criminal conspiracy on earth is too overwhelmed by swelling catastrophe offshore in the Gulf that will make Katrina look like a summer squall, impending car bombs in Times Square, and an economy that continues in freefall, to take time out for a chitchat.
On the day I speak in Washington, Teabaggers and their ilk are massing across the Potomac in an open-carry anti-Obama rally — newspaper photos depict white American males with what look like rocket launchers slung over their shoulders. The threats of this nativist scum are not idle ones. The economic collapse has stoked the bumfires that burn fiercely in the dormant craters of the American volcano.
II. New York My roots on the North American landmass snake under the lower east side of Manhattan. The Ross (nee Grossinsky) DNA is imprinted everywhere on these mean streets. My grandma Mamie Zief (Ellis Islandese for “Jew”) relocated from Poland to a Rivington Street tenement at the turn of the 20th Century. Although I grew up in the West Village, I went east at an early age; after fleeing the family nest I squatted in the Shastone Monument building on Essex and Houston before escaping to Mexico in the late 1950s. Two of my kids grew up on Second Street and Avenue A, and my son the hiphop mogul still lives 500 yards away from the old homestead (Dante and I are working on a book that bounces off our mutual addictions to black music.)
My presentations in the Big Apple fit neatly into this geographical schema. I lecture at NYU’s King Juan Carlos Center, once the site of concrete basketball courts where I expanded oodles of adolescent energies. I talk to the Friends of Brad Will at the Sixth Street Community Center where the slain Indymedia journalist, a lower east side rabble-rouser during the darkest days of the Giuliani dictatorship, regularly practiced yoga. Justice for Brad Will remains undone. And I am lured into Amy Goodman’s state-of-the-art lair for 20 minutes of fame. Democracy Now even sends a car to fetch me up to Chelsea and I induce the stern goddess of left radio to smile — but perhaps it was merely a grimace.
New York is chockablock with “I Love/Hate New York” minutes. One morning I descend from Dante’s sixth story inferno for a double espresso and the Lowisaida is infested with cops. I approach one of New York’s Finest, an amiable Caucasian, and inquire about the blue plague: “it’s the Will Smith show,” he smiles mischievously. Just then a motorcade of 50 bullet-proofed black vehicles swings off Houston with their lights flashing and sirens screaming and heads down the Bowery to Cooper Union where our commander-in-chief is to make a major speech addressing financial “reform” (in Mexico, we call this “plugging up the hole after the baby has drowned.”)
Goldman Sachs vultures in dark suits and furrowed brows listen intently but go mum to the press when they deadhead downtown back to Wall Street to continue fleecing the public’s pocket.
I step around the corner onto Houston, where a large enigmatic Shepard Fairey montage that references climate change has just been tagged (Dante who is well-versed in such iconography, speculates that the culprit is a tagger named “Nah” who is dedicated to dissing the public art of the stars of this genre.) Gallery slaves have been bussed in to erase the offending stains. I am wearing my Mexican Electricity Workers tee-shirt, whose black and red colors and clenched fist logo match Fairey’s throw-up, and I am suddenly surrounded by a bevy of documenterians, at least one of whom is just off the boat from Andalusia. They pose me against Fairey’s wall for a thousand-click fashion shoot. New York New York!
Ironically (a word that doesn’t have much scratch here in Gotham), the Banksy flick “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is playing at a grind house across Houston, a cheese ball mockumentary that destroys this world-famous outlaw’s once-pristine reputation for thumbing his nose at power. Indeed, the best thing about the movie is that it is playing right next door to the Yonah Schimmil knishery. I order a kasha knish and sign the guest book with Subcomandante Marcos’s rubric.
Also a mandatory dining stop in the old neighborhood: the immortal Katz’s (“Send a salami to your boy in the Army”) where pushy New Yorkers of the Hebraic persuasion scuffle to be next in line at the counter of this now 100% Puerto Rican-run deli. The brisket is still to die for.
New York City and environs is now home to a half million Mexicans, mostly from Puebla state, whose slow country drawls are a foil for the tropical machine-gun accents of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The Poblanos work in the kitchens of yupped-up food palaces (16 Oaxaquenos were burnt to a crisp walloping pots up in “Windows On The World” on the 108th floor of the Twin Towers on 9/11 day) or slave in 24-hour grocery stores run by Arabs and Hindus and Koreans.
Mexican elites who have fled here from their imploding fatherland do not much rub elbows with their impoverished compatriots, except when they employ them as maids and babysitters One of the few upsides of the new Arizona Breathing While Brown law is that former pundit and Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda might be jailed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his storm troopers and forced to don pink underwear if he were to be stopped without papers in Maricopa County.
The new Boston Tea Party that catapulted Scott Brown into the suddenly Kennedy-less Senate is not an anomaly in a city where the name of Charles Stuart (Google him up) still rings a bell.
I speak at the Harvard Coop to a handful of bedraggled Harvard Square denizens who have found sanctuary from a driving rainstorm in this hallowed readery. I am invited to the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies to rant at the future leaders of Latin America — but none show up. I spend an engaging evening with Jack Womack, whose “Zapata & The Mexican Revolution” is still the definitive text on the struggle of the incorruptible revolutionary. Jack, now emeritus in Harvard Yard, recently rebuked the Mexican government by turning down a literary prize because of President Felipe Calderon’s role in the firing of 43,000 workers in an undisguised ploy to privatize electricity generation in Mexico, and is currently chipping away at his life work, a history of working class struggle in the state of Veracruz. Jack and I converse in an argot stippled with so many arcane references to social upheaval south of the border that FBI eavesdroppers could surmise we are planning a new Mexican revolution — which, 100 years to the date of the last one, is not such a bad idea.
I warm up for May 1st rallies by urging attendees at community meetings at the UNITE building in Chinatown and a U-U church in Jamaica Plains to join the protests. There are two marches and rallies set for International Workers Day in Beantown, the bitter fruit of a split in the movement the seeds of which I could not divine.
On the Boston Commons, I spiel about the first May 1st back in 1886 when 80,000 immigrant workers stomped through Chicago to demand the eight-hour day, a day of solidarity and struggle around the world everywhere except in the country where it was birthed. The Haymarket Martyrs join us for a stroll through the streets of downtown Boston, held aloft by the ubiquitous Bread & Puppet comrades.
All across Amerikkka, immigrant workers, incensed by the enactment of a law that makes inhaling the air of Arizona a jailable crime if you are a person the color of the earth, were on the march, perhaps a half million (high end estimates) strong — as many as 200,000 in Los Angeles and another 100,000 in Chicago; 25,000 more in Dallas and significant turnouts in New York and Washington but only 6,000 or so in Boston to which Mexicans have migrated in smaller numbers.
This year’s surge, which was dwarfed by the gargantuan outpourings of 2006, featured a marked absence of Mexican flags as undocumented workers chose to cloak themselves in the Stars and Stripes in response to the feeding frenzy of the Fox News lynch mob.
Although the condemnation of Arizona Goddamn was vibrant, it must be noted that there have been as many ICE raids under the Obaminators as under Bush and the crackdown on employers is targeting union-organized janitors. David Bacon, whose reportage remains a light in this darkness, recently noted that 175 SEIU janitors are about to be fired in San Francisco, once a sanctuary city for labor.
The People the Color of the Earth rolled through the streets of east Boston with gusto. “No One Is Illegal!” Sandra, my displaced Chilanga guardian angel, and I yodeled in unison with the compas. “Do I Look Illegal?” read the homemade banner draped around the shoulders of a skinny pre-teener. Many high schoolers wore caps and gowns to highlight the prohibitions on financial aid that doom their college educations to MacDonald’s Hamburger U.
Speaker after speaker in a park down by the harbor — where, indeed a few hundred years back down the pike the original Boston Tea Party was staged — raged against a system that still consigns immigrant workers to the lowest step on the American food chain. “Justicia! Justicia!” they clamored and their cries were no less relevant than those uttered by the “Martires de Chicago,” as the Haymarket martyrs are known throughout Latin America. By the time I took the mic, all the words had already been spoken but I finished up with the chant of the pensioners’ movement in Mexico City in whose ranks I am enrolled: “Parar Es Morir!” — To Stop Is To Die!
Me and the Monstruo have come to the end of our three month 66 performance journey through Obamalandia but there’s one thing you can count on: “Parar Es Morir.” I’m not planning on stopping (or dying) any time soon.
John Ross will be returning to Mexico in mid- May to begin work on a new book, “From Bebop To HipHop – Fathers & Sons.” You can consult him on particulars at email@example.com
Editors note: John Ross is wandering the country on a book tour, sharing his observations of Obamalandia, 2010. You can read his previous dispatches here and here
I. Role models
When I finally made Chicago, they were all waiting for me down there two blocks south of the end of the Blue Line, through the wrought-iron gates of Forest Home Cemetery, past the ostentatious mausoleums of fabulous gypsies and clustered around the heroic monument to the Haymarket Martyrs: Red Emma, looking a little dingy these days; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl; William Z. Foster, the CPUSA’s most rigid ideologue and the leaders of its black sector Henry Winston and William Patterson; the anarchist femme fatal Voltairine de Cleyres; hobo-ologist Ben Reitman; and, of course my personal role model, Lucy Parsons, who outlived her Albert (hung by the State for the Haymarket frame-up) by 50 years, traveling this poisoned landscape from sea to stinking sea speechifying to the masses and hawking her incendiary pamphlets to make ends meet. A single wilted rose adorned the soft granite pillow that bears her name and dates.
Scattered amidst the tombstones of the 70-plus anarchists and communists, radicals and rabble-rousers that Irving Abrams and the Pioneer Aid Society planted here are the DNAs of Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood and Eddie Balchowsky, the one-winged barrelhouse piano player who gave up his arm to Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Irving himself has a box seat at the foot of the Haymarket marker, now a National Historical Landmark managed by the government that these brave souls in residence once sought to overthrow.
Emma Goldman and her condescending epitaph (“a people must rise up to liberty”) was unquestionably Irving’s greatest steal, having won the bidding war for her cadaver after she croaked up in Toronto, to bring her home to the country from which she had been deported decades before for counseling young men not to sign up for the First Imperialist War. But despite the old-time luminaries in repose, I had journeyed down to Forest Home to visit with a recent implant, Franklin Rosemont, the anarchist writer and majordomo of Charles Kerr, the oldest radical publishing house in the U.S., now being sustained by his widow Penelope.
“Surrealism Forever!” reads Franklin’s slab, in keeping with the celebratory tone of this section of the old boneyard. Franklin, who passed abruptly last year, is buried within the arc of the Haymarket monument. The Cottons, Clara and Warren (not known to be subversives), keep him company.
I doubt that our current president, whose adopted city Chicago is, has ever communed with these noble spirits, but it would be an educational experience if ever he should make his way down to Forest Home. Enveloped by deal-making devotees of Chicago’s backroom Democratic Party politics like Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarrett, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan (now neck-deep in a hometown scandal for A-listing the scions of the influential in Chicago’s elite public schools), the examples set by Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman might have stiffened Obama’s shaky backbone and taught him to stand up for the principles he has abandoned as the CEO of the planet’s longest-running criminal conspiracy.
Michael James rules the venerable Heartland Café in Rogers Park in the extreme northwest of this windy metropolis, a schmooze and booze venue for the left side of the local Democratic Party machine for the past three decades. Both Obama and Bill Ayers have crossed its threshold occasionally at the same time, and Michael, the facilitator of “Rising Up Angry,” a militant Uptown youth group at the tail end of the turbulent ’60s, is now the chairperson of the local Demo ward committee. Although he will never concede that Baracko has squandered the faith that millions invested in him, I sense growing disappointment with Hope Man’s wishy-washy performance 15 months into his tainted term in office.
As always, I bunked with the James Gang — Paige, the kids, and the estimable Che, a Labrador with a most dignified demeanor — and plunged into Chicago’s stimulating cultural mix. Also in residence: the foot-stomping Irish fiddler Paddy Jones, just in from Tralee — three years ago, Mike dragged Paddy and I off to the Korean baths where the local political class conspires. We sat buck naked in the sauna and Paddy insisted I regale him with the cautionary tale of El Che (the revolutionary martyr not the mutt).
This time around, Michael escorted me to the late Nelson Algren’s birthday party in a church close by this quintessential Chicago scribbler’s beloved Division Street neighborhood, during which mash notes from his lover Simone de Beuvoir were read, lending credence to Frankie Lyman’s pointed inquiry “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
Yet another highpoint of my weeklong pilgrimage to the Hog Butcher of the World were a pair of meetings in Pilsen, an industrial enclave where the U.S. Communist Party first convened hard by Blue Island Avenue back in 1919 and now the most pertinent barrio in Mexico’s second U.S. city. More than a hundred Latino activists showed up to hear me rant and rave about the prospects for a new Mexican revolution and plot this year’s May 1st march in a city where immigrant workers first took to the streets 124 years ago to demand redress for crimes inflicted upon the working class by the bosses of industry and commerce. Four years ago, a half million immigrant workers marched here to demand recognition of their rights and despite the broken promises encapsulated in the Schumer-Graham proposed Immigration “Reform” bill, Chicago’s Mexican community is warming up for another red-hot May Day.
I followed the contours of the mighty Mississippi from Chicago to St. Louis through rich bottomland that is now the domain of Archer Daniels Midland. St. Louis is an urban hub that features wide, well-kept lawns and bushels of dirty money — Monsanto, Boeing, Peabody Energy, and Talx, which counsels greedy congloms on unemployment compensation, are all headquartered here.
Yet, despite the capitalist connivance, the city has its own sui generis radical history. The 1877 railroad strike spread from the east to St. Louis and set the style for labor strife in the west, and the anarchist Flores Magon brothers published “Regeneracion,” the bible of the 100 year-old Mexican revolution, here before they were run out of town in the teens of the past century.
My days in St. Louis were well spent. I preached an Easter Sunday sermon at the Mid Rivers Ethical Society, sharing my vision of resurrection and insurrection in the aforementioned Forest Home boneyard, and offered up my palaver at a Black Green Party forum in a soul food parlor off Delmar, spreading the news of the Mexican government’s execrable persecution of electrical workers pushed out of their workplaces last October at bayonet point by the military and police in a scheme to privatize electricity generation south of the border.
I walked the St Louis Walk of Fame, stepping over the stars of the likes of William Burroughs, Chuck Berry, Walker Evans, and Fontella Bass, all of whom had to leave town to achieve a modicum of notoriety. I even encountered my very first St. Louie Cardinal, a crimson-hued bird perched in a sapling, spring zephyrs ruffling its crest, from which the Anheuser Busch dynasty drew the logo for the local nine in this beisbol-intoxicated town (they were previously dubbed the “Perfectos” after a popular cigar.)
III. Black & Brown
Further down river, the scrublands of Mississippi spread into the horizon beneath the cramped commuter flight in from Memphis. I had not touched down in the state since Freedom Summer 1964, when I arrived on the very day that the bodies of three civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney) were unearthed beneath a dam in Philadelphia, Miss.
Although Black and White speak more cordially to each other these days and there are few black bodies swinging from the poplar trees, Mississippi God Damn (dixit Nina Simone) is still moldering down below. I could feel the heat at my hotel just off the Millsaps College campus in Jackson, where a statewide PTA meeting was in progress. In the conference rooms, black parents squared off against white school administrators over curriculums and the unequal quality of education. This is a commemoration year for black activism, the 40th anniversary of the killings at Jackson (and Kent) State and the 50th for SNCC — and old grievances burn long and deep.
The old civil rights movement achieved only token parity in this the poorest state in the union. Now a new civil rights movement is focusing on the flood of Mexican and Latino workers who poured into Mississippi in the wake of Katrina, and brown people are today’s niggers down at the bottom of the food chain.
Only 34,000 “Hispanics” were officially counted in the 2000 state census but Bill Chandler, a veteran of the Texas farm workers union and spokes for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), thinks that three times as many undocumented workers, lured to the state by casino construction, were overlooked back then. In 2010, Chandler calculates that the immigrant numbers have swelled to 200,000, nearly 10% of the state population, and taken together with close to a 40% Afro-American share, Mississippi now verges on becoming a majority People of Color entity. A similar equation is at work throughout the Deep South with Alabama and South Carolina and Georgia also hanging in the balance. Such changing demographics help to explain the vitriol the Teabaggers and White Citizen Council types shower upon the newcomers.
Back in August 2008, Immigration Control and Enforcement broke its own despicable workplace raid record by imprisoning (in Jena La., the site of other racist outrages) and deporting 595 Mexican and Latino workers who had been employed by Howard Industries down in Laurel. Chandler thinks the pogram was accomplished with the complicity of the company which was intent on cheating workers out of their wages. MIRA eventually won checks for most of those detained and deported.
An even more outrageous incidence of lingering Mississippi bigotry was the treatment of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, a mono-lingual Chatino indigena from Oaxaca who was picked up by police as she stumbled along the highway shoulder trying to get to a local hospital to give birth. Her baby daughter Ruby was subsequently stolen from her by child welfare authorities who deemed her an unfit mother because she couldn’t speak English and given to a well-appointed childless white couple. As might be anticipated, such blatant racism struck a tender nerve south of the border and a year later, Ruby was returned to her birth mother.
Justice in Mississippi, as in much of Obamalandia, remains elusive but every once in a while the push of the people from down below captures such small prizes.
On their East Coast swing, John Ross & “El Monstruo” will visit Washington/Baltimore (Red Emma’s April 19th/ University of Maryland – Baltimore on the 20th/ Institute for Policy Studies the 21st); New York (NYU the 22nd/ Sixth Street Community Center the 23rd/Bluestockings the 25th); and Boston (Harvard Coop the 27th/David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies the 28th/Mass Global Action the 29th/IPS-Jamaica Plains the 30th/ topped of by a May 1st rally on the Boston Commons between Noon & Two.) All events are all free.
Editors note: Guardian correspondent John Ross is traveling across the nation pomoting his new book, El Monstruo — Dread & Redemption in Mexico City, and is sending us dispatches from the road. This week: Twin Cities, Madison and Northern Michigan.
1. BLUE IGLOO
As I deplaned the Southwest Shuttle from Denver wrapped in my blue igloo, a puffed up garment that doubles my skeletal girth, a sudden spasm of panic punched me in the gut. Had I slept through my stop and disembarked in Fargo, North Dakota instead? Minneapolis might just as well have been Fargo. The dead winter landscape lay frozen under week-old snowdrifts and the Twin Cities shivered in negative wind chill numbers beneath a leaden sky from which a cold hard rain would pelt down for a week. Fargo or Minneapolis? It didn’t much matter where I had landed – just don’t toss me into the wood chipper.
On my first evening in this desolate region, I was invited to dialogue with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network at a community center in St. Paul. About 15 transplanted Mexicans, many of them related by marriage or friendship, pulled together in a circle in the gymnasium while the kids romped in the other room. Each called out his or hers’ “patria chica,” their home state or region or town. I talked about Mexico down on the ground today in the cheerless winter of 2010, the 100th anniversary of a distant revolution. How four out of every ten heads of households are out of work. 10,000 farmers and their families forced to abandon their milpas as millions of tons of NAFTA corn inundate the country. 19,000 dead in Felipe Calderon’s disastrous attempt to beat down the drug cartels. Who will be next?
Those in the circle leaned forward on their folding chairs, bending into my words as if I was a messenger bringing bad news from home. One woman began to weep and another rose to comfort her.
Later, I pulled out my book, El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City to show them what I had written. Families who would probably not eat meat for a week if they bought one snapped up three Monsters and asked me to sign them for their children — Alejandra, Yesica, Jeni, Alfonso, Jonaton — so that they could learn about the country they had been forced to abandon, in their new language.
As the session wound down, Mariano (not his real name) invited the families to a Jewish Seder the next week at a progressive Minneapolis schul. Then they would get on the buses and head for Washington D.C., a 150 hour round trip, to march for immigration reform on March 21st, the first day of spring. In the nooks and crannies of Obama’s America, Mexicans were beginning to come out of four years of social hibernation to rally for immigration reform, not a hot button issue in this economically strewn landscape.
I hung up with my old camarada Tomas Johnson, one of the apostles of fair trade Zapatista coffee — similar dispensaries like Just Coffee in Madison and Higher Grounds in Michigan are sprinkled over the frigid Midwest. Café has played a diminished role in the slender Zapatista economy ever since Muk’Vitz, a Tzotzil Indian cooperative, imploded when coffee prices soared — coyotes, bottom-feeder speculators, started showing up on the members’ doorsteps offering a few pesos more than the fair trade price.
Coffee is not an ideal resource upon which to build Zapatista autonomy — the price is set far away on commodity exchanges in London and New York and the product itself is destined for the jaded palettes of the connoisseur class in the cities of the north. Moreover, the coffee crop soaks up corn land and adds nothing to indigenous nutrition.
I marked my journey into my 73rd year at a house fiesta hosted by Tomas’s steady squeeze, an audiologist who gifted me with a hearing aid so that I might be able to decipher that questions hurled at me from the small audiences I address. This time last year, I was being wheeled into a green, antiseptic operating room for a round of chemotherapy that would k.o. the tumor that had taken over my liver. This birthday is the real gift.
I entertained privileged white students at several universities during my stay in the Twin Cities, got hopelessly lost in a frigid wasteland trying to find a Lutheran college, told tall tales to a handful of Raza at the U. of Minn, and attended a showing of the Benny More bio-pic at a jam-packed local theater. Benny’s scintillating calor radiating from the screen in waves of tropical heat juxtaposed oddly against the backdrop of the frozen north. Minneapolis-St Paul, with their new populations of color – Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Hmung, and Latinos – spice up this staid old state with exotic flavors. The music has changed: Reggaeton and Rancheros have replaced Spider John Koerner. I drink in the Albert Ayler-like contortions of a longhaired white boy at a jam session downstairs at the Clown Lounge.
Politics too are not as usual in this once-upon-a-time farmer-labor socialist paradise: Keith Ellison is the nation’s first Muslim congress person and a middle-of-the-road Democrat comedian stands small in the shoes of Paul Wellstone. In the other corner, the pit viper Michelle Bachman spits her venom into the black lagoons of Obamalandia.
II. TURKEY MOLE
I’m back on the Big Dog — there are plenty of Mexicans here but no Mexican bus. On the jump over to Madison, I chat with a well-seasoned black man during a smoke break. He wants to know where I’m headed. I’m on a low-rent book tour, I explain, I move from city to city to sell my books. “I’m on a book tour myself,” he laughs, “I get off where I want to and see if I like it or not. Hung up in Oswego for eight days but wasn’t anything there for me…”
There is a down-at-the-heels traveling class — the evicted and foreclosed, laid off and uprooted — rolling around the underbelly of this damaged country with no fixed destination in mind, looking for a place to light, some place that feels like home.
Norm Stockwell, who keeps WORT-FM, the Voice of Madison’s Voiceless, choogling, picks me up at the Greyhound depot, a furniture-less warehouse that resembles an immigrant detention center on the outskirts of town, and drives me over to the once-a-month Socialist pot-luck, but only scraps and few stained paper plates are left. A few hours earlier, the Madison P.D. visited the premises at the behest of the Wisconsin Socialist Party to remove a truculent member who had been abruptly expelled from its ranks, an astonishingly unpolitical resolution to a political dispute.
Madison is a city that doesn’t leave much up to chance. Cops are ever at the ready to surveil radical meetings. One cannot post a hand-scrawled street sign protesting injustice without first obtaining a permit from the city. No household is allowed to house more than three chickens (no roosters), a law that necessitates chicken inspectors and has given birth to the Chicken Liberation Front.
The State Capitol, a knock-off the Nation’s, is forever on the eyeline in Madison to remind one of the power of the State, I expect. The city is laid out on a grid so that all avenues spoke off from its monstrous dome – you have to move out of town to escape the radiation.
On Saturday, March 20th, a fistful of eternal protestors gathered at the foot of this granite beast to mark the start of the eighth year of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and the decimation of millions of its people. As I trudged up State Street towards the Capitol, I flashed back to our feverish days as Human Shields in Baghdad in March 2003 and thought about Sasha for whom the war never goes home, climbing the hills of Amman, delivering collateral repair from dawn to dusk to the million Iraqi refugees that forgotten war has exiled to the Jordanian capitol.
Our presidents invade so many foreign countries that they can’t even remember the name of the last one they destroyed. Iraq has been erased from the North American mind screen in favor of Afghanistan, the Good War on Obama’s agenda. Last month, Sasha and Mary’s Collateral Repair Project took in just $50 in donations and CRP is in danger of folding. Send them some Yanqui shekels at (www.collateralrepairproject.org.)
The annual commemoration of the Iraqi genocide draws smaller and smaller knots of humanity each year — 80 or so souls in Madison, 500 in San Francisco, not 10,000 in Washington. But the next day, as Baracko’s Dems braved the racist jibes and hard fruit of the Teabaggers to enter the hallowed halls of Congress and narrowly vote up a phony health care reform bill that excludes immigrants from coverage and leaves the insurance congloms on top, 200,000 assembled outside to back up a proposed immigration reform that smells just as cheesy as Obamacare.
The rally proved to be the largest confluence of immigrant workers since that miraculous May 1st four years ago when millions came out of the shadows to shout “aqui estamos y no nos vamos.” After that milestone moment, the immigrant rights movement was driven into the underground by Bush’s ICE raids, Lou Dobbs, the Minutemen, real-time Mexico bashing with knives and bottles, Sheriff Joe’s Arizona storm troopers, good ol’ American-as-apple-pie racism, and the squeamish response of the official Latino leadership.
Now the indocumentados are taking their first baby steps back into the maelstrom of U.S. politics. Hundreds of grassroots groups like the Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network rented buses and drove off to Washington on the first day of spring and May 1st, the day on which immigrant workers first took to the streets of America 124 years ago in the battle for the eight hour day, now looms large on the calendar of resistance.
Lester Dore is a graphic artist who operates under the influence of the king of the calaveras Jose Guadalupe Posada, the brothers Flores Magon, and the breathtaking explosion of popular art that detonated on the walls of Oaxaca during the 2006 uprising in that southern city. Lester whips up a pair of prints to celebrate the publication of “El Monstruo” and the life after death of Praxides G. Guerrero, the first anarchist to fall in the 100 year-old-this-year Mexican revolution. He serves up a big pot of Mole de Guajalote (Turkey) and invites us over. Three compas from Toluca in Mexico State share the sumptuous repast and the conversation quickly slides into Mexican. I learn the origin of the Chilango-ismo “teparocha” (falling down drunk) but eschew the vino (the liver lives on.)
III. SANCTUARY IN THE HEARTLAND
Driving the long route around Lake Superior into northern Michigan, the first tentative fingers of spring have brought a thawing to the land. The cherries that draw thousands of migrant workers to the Lower Peninsula are threatening to burst into bud. Gladys Munoz (her real name) directs Migrant Health Services for seven northern Michigan counties. She is based in Traverse City, a comfortable upper crust enclave — the billion buck mansions out on the peninsula are in the El Chapo Guzman category of ostentation (Michael Moore is rumored to be in residence in the environs ensconced in a lavish log cabin roughly the size of downtown Flint.)
Gladys knows where the bodies are buried. We ply the backroads to the labor camps hidden away down in the dank gullies. Guatemalans and Mexicans stream into this region each spring to do the stoop labor no gringo will do and pick the Maraschinos that top off the parfaits of the few upwardly mobile Americans left in the wake of the ravaged economy (Michigan unemployment clocks in around 15%.) Gladys tells me about three babies born without brains — she suspects pesticides. She speaks about a man from Chiapas who hung himself when he found out that he had contacted AIDS — a priest was called upon to perform an exorcism at the house where he expired. And a young Triqui Indian mother from Oaxaca picking cucumbers for a Vlasic pickle contractor who was stranded in a country that doesn’t recognize her language after her husband went fishing for supper without a license and Fish & Game turned him over to the Migra.
We visit with Liliana (not her real name) from the drug war-riddled hot lands of Guerrero state. The patron is a kindly old farmer who has installed cable TV for the workers and we watch Barack Obama extol the wonders of his tarnished health care bill. Liliana’s husband is picking oranges in Florida but will soon return to work the cherry. She says he doesn’t much believe that an immigration reform measure will make it out of congress – “just some more blahblahblah…” But Liliana will march this May 1st if she can get a ride — undocumented workers are not permitted drivers’ licenses in the state of Michigan.
Traverse City is good to me. I perform at a local organic coffee roaster for a roomful of social change agents. The next morning, Jody T. who gave up her life to drive this garrulous old gaffer around the bioregion, steers the Viva into a trepidatious triangle. Cadillac was once the home base for Timothy McVeigh and the Michigan Militia, a recent flashback on the Ten O’clock News after a Christian posse purportedly targeted cops for blood sacrifice in preparation for the appearance of the Anti-Christ. To the west, small towns with Dutch-inflected names like Holland and Zeeland and Vreland dot the lakeside.
White clapboard outposts of the Dutch Reform Church, the architect of South African apartheid, their steeples spiring piously into the spring breeze, hug the highway. The Dutch Reform Church is the spiritual home of the Prinz family whose most celebrated spawn, Eric, is the go to guy at Blackwater. Further south we slide into Grand Rapids where the similarly affiliated DeVos dynasty’s Amway holds sway. The Prinzes and the DeVoses (a good reason not to root for the Orlando Magic) finance such repositories of right-wing fanaticism as Focus On The Family and Operation Rescue. The largesse of Dick DeVos rivaled the Mormon Church in putting California’s homophobic Proposition 8 over the top.
Grand Rapids, once the furniture capitol of the known universe and now the home of the Gerald Ford Museum of Presidential Imbeciles, is a good boxing town (Buster Mathis and Roger Mayweather have gyms here) and a swelling Latino population has changed the complexion of the city. Despite the downturn, Grand Rapids is trying to upgrade its downtown but the further one gets from the core of the city, the seedier things look.
Koinonia House is a sanctuary near the old demolished heart of Grand Rapids — in fact, it is the only structure left standing on its block. Established by disaffected seminarians like Jeff Smith in the early 1980s when the U.S. waged war on Central America, K House became a station on the underground railroad built by the Sanctuary Movement. The first refugees were Guatemalan Indians fleeing the scorched earth genocide of Efrain Rios Montt. In recent years, K House has taken in Mexicans fleeing that “desgraciada pobreza” back home, like Carlos and Alynn (their real names) who have brought their remarkable art with them to El Norte.
Jeff kicks back and reminisces about the fates of former tenants. The big-bellied wood stove belches out waves of warmth on a chill late March morning. The big arms of the fluffy old lounger envelop a weary traveler and hold him close. K House remains a sanctuary deep in the heart of a wounded land.
Stay tuned. Chicago, St Louis, Jackson Mississippi – there is still a whole lot of traveling to do as the Monstruo tour moves eastwards.
John Ross and “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will visit St. Louis April 4th-7th, and Millsaps College Jackson Mississippi April 9th for a symposium on Mexico City – he will tour Baltimore, Washington, New York, and Boston April 19th through May 1st. For details write firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am on a low-rent book tour with my new cult classic El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption In Mexico City. For the next three months, I will stumble across this land from sea to stinking sea probing the underbelly of Obama’s America. The findings will be posted on these pages.
LAS CRUCES N.M. — The snow was already dusting the Organ Mountains fringing this high desert town, promising a hard winter further up the spine of Obama’s America. I ride the Mexican bus (officially doing business as the El Paso-L.A, Limousine Express) when I ply the back roads of the southwest. Greyhound, with its stern rules and regulations and surly drivers who threaten their cargos with summary expulsion for minor infractions, doesn’t much inspire me these days.
With notable exceptions, Greyhound passengers are a harried and haunted bunch, riding the Big Dog from trouble to trouble, often with all their possessions stuffed into plastic garbage bags. In the cruelest of gestures, the Greyhound management has recently banned garbage bags as an instrument of luggage. Zombie passengers on the Big Dog stare out at the distant horizon submerged in their worries or stab music into their ears to sever all human communication. No one talks to their fellow travelers anymore.
By way of contrast, the Mexican bus bubbles with chatter. “Platicame!” (“Talk to me!”) my seatmates insist. The chitchat often gravitates towards work — where they have recently toiled, the job towards which they are headed. Wistful nostalgia for their families and pueblos down in Mexico are common ground. Rancheros belch from the speakers and the taste of tamales flavors the ride. It feels like going home.
Bus rides are an opportunity to reinvent oneself. I am usually the only gabacho on these long hauls through the rugged mountains and barren deserts of the southwest, but I speak colloquial, unaccented Mexican and who I really am excites curiosities. These days, my kuffiyah wrapped around my scrawny neck, I pass myself as an Arab from Mexico City hawking books from tank town to tank town, a plausible story — back home, Arabs are often stereotyped as itinerant peddlers.
North of Las Cruces, the Mexican bus is pulled into a Migra shed and the conversation modulates real quick. A blonde woman agent jumps on board and demands to see everyone’s documents. She studies the passports and green cards under the glare of her flashlight and then shines it into the eyes of the passengers to see who will blink first. One young man — he looks like a university student – is pulled off the bus and is never seen again. When the Mexican bus slides out of the shed, the chatter resumes — but with one less voice in the mix.
Clayton, a young Wobbly who used to run a bookshop down by the rail yards in Albuquerque that was mostly frequented by hobos looking for a little warmth in a cold winter world, is now teaching at a troubled middle school. Patrol cars are often parked out front and half the kids – 99.99% of who are “Hispanics” (read Mexicans) – have juvenile police records. Clayton asks me in to talk to the students, who have never seen a real author in the flesh.
We hunker down in the library and I step into my Grandpa persona and tell tales of the Mexican revolution while Clayton projects portraits of the Great Zapata and Pancho Villa on the audio-visual screen. I recount how the two men met in a rural schoolhouse in Xochimilco, now a borough of Mexico City, in December 1914. For an hour the two sat in frozen silence until Zapata, unable to contain his bitterness, declares that Carranza, their rival, is “un hijo de puta!” The kids fall off their little library chairs in gales of Mexican mirth. Clayton frets for his job but the librarian apparently doesn’t understand Spanish.
I show the kids my books. Helen, a boisterous tweener, grabs “Iraqigirl” from Clayton’s hand and announces she is taking it home. The next day, she returns it with a review: “this is the best book I have ever read.” Two boys sit at the round reading table with copies of “El Monstruo — Dread & Redemption In Mexico City” and “Murdered by Capitalism — 150 Years of Life & Death on the American Left” spread before them. They pour over the subversive pages all through the lunch hour. When we prompt them that we have to leave, they hide the books under their hoodies.
“I don’t have it — check me out!” Salvador (not his real name) challenges. The librarian rushes over and promises the boys that she has just ordered the books on line for them. They will be here Monday morning. “But this is only Thursday,” protests Manuel (not his real name.)
Garfield middle school is the best stop so far on this monstrous book tour.
Attendance at public events in Albuquerque is sparse. A vegan spread at the Catholic Worker House drums up a dozen hungry souls, a presentation of “Iraqigirl” at the Peace & Justice Center eight, including an Iraqi woman who leaves early. I show “Corazon del Tiempo” (“Heart of Time”), the new Zapatista movie (it was previewed at Sundance) in a small room at the university – Weather veterano Mark Rudd and the remarkable investigator Nelson Valdez and a handful of starry-eyed students (“Corazon” is a love story) show up.
I sorely miss my old pal Tilda Sosaya who fought doggedly for prisoners’ rights in the nearly wholly privatized New Mexico prison system for decades after her son was imprisoned for ten years for some dumb teenage caper. Last March, I wrote Tilda that I had been diagnosed with liver cancer and she wrote back that she had it too. The cancer took her quickly and now she is gone and her son is back in prison. We fight for justice but life in this lane is not very just.
I catch the day train up to Santa Fe to visit with the writer Chellis Glendinning. Chellis has lived for the past 18 years on a tiny plot in Chimayo, the land of miraculous dirt and a key distribution point for black tar heroin from Sinaloa and Nayarit — see her “Chiva – How One New Mexican Town Took On The Global Heroin Trade.” Now she is pulling up stakes and throwing in with Evo Morales. Her jeep flies a Bolivian flag and she is rushing to be in Cochabamba for the tenth anniversary of the landmark struggle against the privatization of that city’s water supply by the Bechtel Corporation. Adios companera — la lucha sigue y sigue y sigue!
I am back on the Mexican bus heading towards Denver. The riders get off at whistlestops like Las Vegas and Durango and Colorado Springs where they will do the dirty work of this country — walloping pots, washing cars, cleaning motel rooms, milking cows, shoveling their manure, keeping Obama’s America spic and span for the next paying customer at minimum wages if indeed they are not cheated out of them by unscrupulous contractors.
When the guy across the aisle gets curious, I revive my new identity as an Arab peddler. “Donde esta tu mujer?” he asks (“Where is your wife?”) and I lie that she is in Iraq taking care of her people. “The Yanquis invaded her country and bombed her neighborhood…” “Pobre gente,” he sympathizes. Santiago (is that his real name?) is from Hidalgo de Parral, Chihuahua and says he is on his way to work the Colorado ski resorts where so many Mexicans slave for Senor Charlie these days. He knows all about exile.
I am invited to deliver a pair of lectures at Denver University, Condoleezza Rice’s alma mater (her father was provost.) Doug Vaughn, also a DU grad who went left at an early age, notices that I will be speaking at the same time as Cindy Courville, Condi’s roommate who followed her to the National Security Council and then became U.S. emissary to the African Union.
My talks are programmed for the Josef Korbel Center for International Studies. Josef Korbel was Madeline Albright’s father, to give you some assessment of my chances of winning converts here. Indeed, the students are polite and well-groomed, models of future CIA assets — in tracking down the announcement of Courville’s talk on a Korbel Center bulletin board, Doug encounters a CIA recruitment leaflet. The grad students have been forewarned they will be visited by a representative of the lunatic fringe and busy themselves with their e-mail under the pretext of taking notes.
Academic acrimony flourishes in the Denver- Boulder axis. Everywhere else in this land where my father croaked, the trials and tribulations of Ward Churchill and his ill-timed assault on the “little Eichmans” deconstructed in the Twin Towers conflagration went out with the fish wrap the next morning — but here in mile-high city, mention of Ward and Colorado AIM can still start a prairie fire. Although such Churchill accusers as the governor and the Colorado U president have long since resigned due, in fact, to other scandals after successfully silencing Ward, his detractors’ thirst for blood remains unsatiated.
Infused with the venom of the dearly departed Bellencourts (who Churchill once dissed as “Nebraska wigmakers”), Ernesto B. Vigil, author of an action-packed bio of Corky Gonzalez, the Denver-based Xicano founder of the Nation of Aztlan, is still brandishing the long knives. Ward Churchill is a fake Indian, Ernesto obsesses, a white guy whose claim to indigenousness is backed up by white people because white people only listen to white people. White people think they know everything, he scoffs in a heated e-mail in which he disparages my whiteness a dozen times in as many lines.
Actually, I don’t give a rat’s ass if Ward Churchill is one/sixteenth Cherokee or not (the tribal government recently expelled all its black members) — Churchill remains the most lucid writer on American genocide in this benighted country.
Boulder is said to be the most over-regulated city in North America although white liberal enclaves like Madison Wisconsin and Arcata California could give Boulder a run for its money. I accompany Joe Richey, a local alternative radio sleuth, to the Boulder dog pound to bail out his black lab “Yanqui” (as in “Yanqui! Go home!) “Yanqui” has been adjudged guilty of illicit dog-like behavior i.e. nuzzling a neighborhood garbage can.
After Joe pays off the authorities and the mutt is released to his custody and properly admonished, we drive past a local dog park. In a paroxysm of charitable intent, the Boulder City Council permits the homeless to encamp at night amidst the dog turds but they must be gone by daybreak when the pooches of the city’s housed residents take possession or risk a $100 fine. How the homeless, forced to bed down in dog shit nightly, can afford this astronomical sum is unclear. Such is what passes for compassion on the underbelly of Obama’s Amerikkka.
On my final day in Denver, Hank Lamport, a local schoolteacher who favorably reviewed “El Monstruo” for the Post, today the only daily in this formerly two-newspaper town, drives me out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Rehabilitation Area. Until a few years ago, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal manufactured and stored deadly nerve gas, chiefly Serin — an occasional lost canister still spooks the wildlife. The displays at the Visitors’ Center feature photos of workers filling “Honest John” missiles with the stuff. Napalm was also cooked up here. I study the glazed eyes of taxidermied foxes and coyotes and bald eagles and hastily bid adieu.
On the way out of town, we stop to worship the victuals in an Aurora, Colorado taco shop. Hank laments that when he first became a devotee of “Tacos y Salsas,” the clientele, uniformly Mexicanos, would greet him with a “buen provecho” (“good appetite” — a universal courtesy in the Spanish-speaking world) but now the customers have become so gringo-ized that the salutation is a lost art. Nonetheless, when we polish off our orders and head for the door, two working stiffs at the next table wish us each “buen provecho.”
It warms the cockles of my contused heart to know that such cultural resistance still percolates out here on the damaged spine of Obamalandia.
Next stop: the frozen, melancholy flatlands of the Great Midwest.
John Ross and “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” (“gritty and pulsating” – NY Post) will be visiting Traverse City and Grand Rapids Michigan in the final week of March. You can catch them at the Headland Café in Chicago’s Rogers Park March 31st, Toronto’s Hoggtown April 1st-4th, and St. Louis Mo. April 7th.
MEXICO CITY – Last July, in a meticulously planned raid reminiscent of the classic guerrilla jail breakouts that are legend in Latin America, a commando force of 20 heavily armed fighters freed 53 comrades from a prison in the northern state of Zacatecas. Were the perpetrators in fact guerrilleros from some as-yet unknown revolutionary foco or narcos emulating a guerrilla-style jailbreak intent on freeing their own?
Recent assassination attempts against high-ranking state officials — Sinaloa’s Secretary of Tourism (successful), Coahuila’s Attorney General (the restaurant at which he was dining with a Texas mayor was sprayed with automatic weapon fire), and a Baja California finance undersecretary (hung by the neck from a Tijuana freeway overpass) — suggest revolutionary retribution in a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution in which jitters of new uprisings are legion. January 1st was welcomed in with anarchist bombs, sabotage, and “expropriations” in Mexico City and Tijuana on the northern border.
Although the incidents cited suggest revolutionary subversion, they were all the handiwork of Mexico’s five narco cartels, which are locked in an intractable war with both President Felipe Calderon’s military and federal police — and reportedly hundreds of U.S. drug warriors — that has now taken more than 19,000 lives since December 2006.
The jail breakout in Zacatecas and the Sinaloa and Coahuila shootings are attributed to the syndicates headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, his former associates in the Beltran Leyva gang, and the notorious Zeta cartel.
The hanging of Baja California state finance official Rogelio Sanchez Jimenez was charged to a blood-drenched capo Teodoro Garcia Simentel, a.k.a. “El Teo” or “Three Letters” who is deemed responsible for hundreds of hangings, beheadings, and excessively violent homicides — an associate, Santiago Meza (“El Pozalero”) has reportedly confessed to dissolving 300 victims in vats of acid. Most of the victims were allies of the fading Arellano Felix clan, with whom El Teo is contesting Tijuana.
Simentel was captured this past January 14th in an upscale residential neighborhood of La Paz in adjourning Baja California Sur state, the second top-rung narco purportedly taken down by Mexican authorities in a month. The bust earned bouquets of kudos from Washington, which is financing Calderon’s drug war under the $3,000,000,000 Merida Initiative.
The U.S. role in the capture of El Teo and Arturo Beltran Leyva, “the Boss of Bosses,” who was gunned down by Mexican marines December 16th, appears to have been purposefully downplayed. According to an unidentified member of Calderon’s Security Cabinet as reported by Gustavo Castillo, a La Jornada correspondent with exceptional sources, Simentel was located by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration & Customs Enforcement, a first indication that ICE is now being deployed in Mexico’s drug war.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI are also thought to have armed agents on the ground here under provisions of the Merida Initiative and the North American Security and Prosperity Agreement.
The Calderon government vehemently denies that participation of U.S. agents led to the capture of El Teo or Beltran Leyva, although it acknowledges enhanced cooperation between the two nations’ drug fighters. The suggestion that Washington has assets on the ground here is not acceptable to many Mexicans, whose country has been repeatedly invaded and even annexed by U.S. troops, and is regarded as a violation of national sovereignty.
The number of U.S. security agents working in Mexico is closely held, but observers of Washington’s presence here such as specialist Jorge Camil affirm that it has been rising dramatically since the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington and now totals in the hundreds. The DEA and the FBI now have offices in provincial capitals such as Tuxtla Gutierrez Chiapas, close to the Guatemalan border and multiple smuggling routes.
Mexico is not only in the crosshairs of the U.S. security apparatus because of the flourishing drug trade — the infiltration of terrorists across the porous border also excites attentions, although all reported incidents to date have proven to be false alarms.
Of increasing interest to Washington is the possible alliance of narco gangs with Mexico’s fledgling guerrilla cells, an interpolation of the Colombian model.
The concept of narco-guerrilla coalescence was first proffered in the mid-1980s, soon after Ronald Reagan officially proclaimed the War on Drugs. Then-veep George H.W. Bush, a Navy man, was placed in charge of overseeing interdiction efforts in the Caribbean to stop the Colombian cocaine flow into the southern United States.
Under Bush’s watch, intelligence reports placed the onus on the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Army of National Liberation (ELN), and M-19, a left nationalist movement later decimated by the Colombian army, for extending protection to such world-class kingpins as Pablo Escobar.
The truth was, however, more diffuse: paramilitary units such as the United Auto-Defenders of Colombia (AUC) armed by right-wing rural “terratenientes” (rich land owners) and the Colombian military were the big players in the so-called “narco-guerrillas,” although several FARC fronts openly provided protection to the druglords.
The narco-guerrilla thesis eventually became the underlying reason d’etre for Plan Colombia, in which the twin wars on drugs and terrorism were married. Since the late 1990s, Washington has pumped billions into Colombia to sustain this counter-insurgency strategy. The Merida Initiative, signed in that Yucatan city by George Bush and Felipe Calderon in 2007, is often referred to as Plan Mexico.
As recipients of billion-dollar boodles in U.S. drug war largesse, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe and Mexico’s Calderon are Washington’s most significant allies on a continent where the left has taken power in a majority of countries.
Today, despite a decade of Plan Colombia, Colombian cocaine production has held steady and the FARC ranks as Latin America’s most powerful narco-guerrilla group. Although Mexico has no known counterpart, FARC activities here are closely monitored. FARC offices were shuttered during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) — the FARC and Colombian president Andres Pastrana entabled negotiations in Mexico City in the 1990s.
A Colombian-born National University graduate student was deported to Bogotá last year on terrorism charges for sympathizing with the FARC, and Uribe has issued extradition warrants for a Mexican student who survived the bombing of the Ecuadorian jungle camp of FARC leader Raul Reyes (not his real name) in 2008.
One connection: FARC operators are said to consort with the Valle del Norte Cartel, the main Colombian supplier for El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel. A purported 2007 jungle tete a tete between Reyes, and an unidentified cartel representative suggested the possibility that the Sinaloa boys would buy cocaine directly from the Colombian rebels rather than deal with a series of middlemen suppliers.
Mexico’s armed leftists take pain to steer clear of association with drug gangs. Military intelligence first identified the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as drug and gunrunners on the Guatemalan border, an estimate said to have been backed up by CIA satellite overflights. The Zapatistas have dodged the stigma by waging a vigilant crusade against drugs in their autonomous communities in southeastern Chiapas. Cultivation of marijuana by militants is severely punished by banishment from the EZLN. Nonetheless, the Mexican Army has repeatedly stormed into Zapatista villages on the pretext of marijuana patch sightings.
Mexico’s homegrown guerrilla bands have their roots in the north of the country where this distant neighbor nation’s 1910-1919 revolution first germinated. Revolutionary martyrs Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon were all northerners who marched their armies south to seize power. In 1965, Arturo Gamiz, a disaffected rural schoolteacher, and 12 rebels laid siege to army barracks in Ciudad Madero, Chihuahua; all were killed in the assault. Six years later, the September 23rd Communist League based in the northern industrial city of Monterrey took its name from the date of the assault; 15 armed groups of which the September 23rd league was the most prominent operated throughout Mexico in the 1970s. The Forces of National Liberation (FLN), also based in Monterrey, gave birth to the EZLN in Chiapas. A sister guerrilla group, the Villista Army of National Liberation in Chihuahua, was never consolidated.
Conditions in the north of Mexico where both the narco cartels and the military concentrate their forces are propitious for a resurgence of guerrilla activity.
Unemployment in the region, driven by the decline of the maquiladora industry (many assembly plants have moved to China), is at a 15-year high. The rural economy has been eclipsed by neo-liberal adventures such as the North American Free Trade
Agreement and the deepening recession, the worst in 80 years, is forcing campesinos to abandon their land. A hundred years ago in this vast, mineral-rich region of deserts and scarred mountains, landless peasants and displaced farmers formed the nucleus of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army.
In 2010, many survive the economic crisis by turning to drug cropping — a half million Mexicans are said to earn their living in the drug economy. One indication of increasingly close ties between militant farmers and the drug cartels was the slaying of Margarito Montes Parra, longtime leader of the leftist UGOCEP (General Popular Union of Workers and Farmers) who was ambushed by cartel gunmen in Ciudad Obregon last fall.
Widespread human rights abuses by federal troops who combat the narcos along the northern border has provoked a wave of anti-army, anti-government anger in many northern states and conditions for a Gamiz-like assault on military installations cannot be discounted should drug gangs and armed radicals find common cause.
For prospective guerrilla formations, alliance with narcos has its perks: weapons and money. Both the narcos and the radicals are interested in subverting the state, although their motives may be distinct. For anti-imperialist revolutionaries, poisoning the Yanquis with drugs is a weapon of class war. But negatives abound: everything the cartels touch is corrupted by profit-driven mercantile greed that is at odds with revolutionary ideals, although there are always those who will argue that the end justifies the means.
For Homeland Security and Washington’s security apparatus, the nightmare prospect of a coalition of narcos and guerilleros cruising the border is reason enough to sustain agents on the ground south of the border whether or not Mexican authorities are prepared to admit their presence. Indeed, this January, Obama’s Justice Department announced the merger of its International Terrorism and Narcotics investigation units to prepare for just such an eventuality. The vision of Mexico as a potentially failed narco-state advanced by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a 2008 evaluation is a five-star national security issue for Washington and the option of a U.S. preventative invasion is always on the table.
John Ross continues to slog across Obama’s America now in the second month of his monster book tour with “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption In Mexico City” (“gritty and pulsating” – NY Post.) The author will be in Madison Wisconsin, Traverse City, Grand Rapids Michigan and Chicago (Heartland Café March 31st) during the final two weeks of March. Consult email@example.com or www.nationbooks.org for local dates.
I am on a low-rent book tour with my new cult classic El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption In Mexico City. For the next three months, I will stumble across this land from sea to stinking sea probing the underbelly of Obama’s America. The findings will be posted on these pages.
1. First stop was the near north woods, Humboldt County USA, to wheedle the medicos into granting me a clean bill of health before I hit the road. A year ago this February, my doctor who has poked and probed my old broken cadaver for nearly 20 years, pronounced me dead. “Liver Cancer” he parsed gravely — but I am still alive and kicking. The class enemy be warned: I am not dead yet.
Humboldt had just been wracked by a 6.5 earthquake that cut a swath through Oldtown Eureka’s antique shops but was not quite Haiti. Nonetheless, the shake-up worked its usual bad mojo and implanted the seeds of fear and loathing in every soul. On January 22nd, three separate police agencies shut down the north end of Arcata and evacuated hundreds of residents after a scruffy hippie-type tried to fed ex a suspicious package to Berkeley that leaked, according to the clerk at Kinko’s, “a chemical odor.” The offending package was blown up in a back alley.
The next day, the local rag commonly known as the Times-Slander conceded in front-page headlines that the “bomb” was “Actually a brake light.” The paranoia was symptomatic. A commercial jetliner to Kentucky was forced down by air force jet fighters after an orthodox Jewish kid pulled out his Tefillin to pray and, in a spasm of extreme religious irony, the panicked stewardess took him for some Muslim terrorist and confused the leather straps and little prayer boxes with bomb components that would blow the paying customers to kingdom come.
Nine years ago, just weeks after 9/11, I got on the road to preach Zapatismo to the North Americanos. Flags flew from every home, a sort of Talisman against the terrorist devils. It was not a healthy ambiance for spreading revolution and resistance in Amerikkka. Prospects for the Monster Tour suddenly turned ominous.
2. San Francisco’s Mission District gets shabbier day by day as the “Great Recession” (read “Depression”) gallops towards economic Armageddon. The Miracle Mile is lined with empty storefronts and 98 Cent Stores (marked down from 99.) The homeless sleep under their shopping carts – the Mission Local reports that 40 homeless families are living in 16th Street Single Room Occupancy hotels, twice the occupancy rate of a year ago. In this Sanctuary City for the rich, the yuppie Mayor, who now aspires to be nothing more than a yuppie clerk in a yuppie wine store, is deporting undocumented teenagers convicted of no crime and the class divide seems more brutal than ever.
We posted up on Market Street in front of the Commonwealth Club, where torture enabler John Yoo was hawking his new book to the City’s elite. Financial District drones en route back to the ‘burbs asked Yoo Who? I checked my watch. It was time to hit the rails.
3. The Central Valley was the first stop on the Monster Tour, the most deadly stretch of soil in North American California. The water plumes are all poisoned by agrochemicals and when one turns on the faucet on the west side of the valley, deformed babies pop out.
This cesspool of chemical effluvia is populated by perhaps the most ethnically diverse crazyquilt in all of Obama’s America. Anglo bigwigs and white Armenians rule the roost but down below Mixteco is spoken on the radio, communicating the bad news to the out-of-work Oaxacans who once toiled in the fields and packing sheds. The humongous Hmung community is up in arms over the FBI’s harassment of their spiritual leader, General Vang Pau who authorities accuse of conspiring to overthrow the doctrinaire Communist government of Laos. Unemployed Palestinians and Pakistanis, Filipinos, white trash, and historic enclaves of Blacks, survive in this fulminating chemical stew by their wits. On every street corner, the down-at-the-heels don shabby green gowns and sagging Styrofoam Statue-of-Liberty crowns, holding up cardboard arrows pointing towards strip mall tax return scammers.
I stepped out into Catherine Campbell’s unplanted garden. Police helicopters hovered overhead, searching out suspected gangbangers. Catherine is a veteran prison rights attorney who pays particular attention to what goes on behind bars at Corcoran and Chowchilla, two of the cruelest his & her lock-ups in the state. Recently, she put her know-how to work defending anarchists who had been beaten into the sidewalk by the Fresno pigs for handing out graphic leaflets depicting the torture of elephants during Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s annual visit to town, and she and a gaggle of advocates have been trying to keep the cops off a venerable homeless encampment. Now the City Council is seeking to felonize panhandling on Fresno’s median strips as a “safety hazard.”
The Fresno gendarmes are particularly keen on persecuting young adults of color for alleged gang activities. An article in the Morning Bee reported on the so-called “Bulldog Gang” (the bulldog is the icon of the Fresno State football team so gang colors are readily available) whose members were accused of smashing windows and barking at the cops over on the decrepit west side. Catherine says the bulldogs’ bark is more a growl. Such are the sounds of hope in the second year of Obama’s lacerated reign.
Sam Stoker is a child of the Valley. One night last summer, I bought him a beer at the counter of my beloved Café La Blanca back home in the Centro Historico of Mexico City. Sam, an acculturated Chicano, had journeyed to Mexico to connect with his family in Tamaulipas and bum around, sniffing out what was left of the 2006 rebellion in Oaxaca. When he went home to Winton near Merced, he spoke enough Spanish to delight his grandma.
Sam is also an anarchist and a budding journalist who has been up to his neck in the struggle for justice for Oscar Grant in Oakland. Now he had come to the Valley to spread the virus of anarchism. Rebellion in the fields could bring California to its knees, he confided. I was only too happy to help out.
Anarchism has a beachhead in Fresno at the Infoshop where 70 folks turned out to hear me preach revolution. Not all of the fellow workers were young punks. One gentleman in attendance told me he had been an organizer for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’s foiled presidential campaign in 1988 in Sinaloa and fled Mexico when dozens of his companeros were gunned down by the mal gobierno. He was still here, still waiting for the revolution.
Over in Merced, I shouted out my poems in a long dark bar, The Partisan, on Superbowl Sunday. A “digital remix” of Guy Debord’s “Society of The Spectacle ” preceded my incendiary words. Maybe Sam Stoker’s pipedream is not as wacky as it sounds.
4. So it was goodbye to Fresno and hello to Hollywood. I accessed the City of Fallen Angels over the Grapevine with a pit stop at Bob Hope airport and a bar in Santa Monica to watch the Lakers kick booty. My gigs were spread out all over this pedestrian unfriendly megalopolis and the signs of hard times were hard to avoid. On the beach in Santa Monica, excruciatingly gaunt old men jogged against debilitating cancers and aging hippies scoured the sands with metal detectors for spare change.
Even out in ritzy Claremont, where I hobnobbed with a Palestinian restaurateur about the Nakba, Obama’s America seemed out of synch. A student at Pomona College where I spieled had just been handcuffed and interrogated by transit security cops in Philadelphia for transporting 200 Arabic-English flashcards across state lines and some cad ripped off my cane down at the train station. The Inland Empire, which abuts this restricted enclave, has the fifth highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the nation.
In Hollywood, where I spent a night on my favorite sofa, the glitz was tempered by the homeless with all their possessions piled high atop their shopping carts around the new Metro station. How many of them were out-of-work script doctors is not yet known.
Down in South Central, where anger is endemic, I spoke to a handful of Afro-Americans at Eso Won, an admirable black bookstore. The proprietor sported a prototypical pork pie hat and told me that when he sees the Mexicans coming over the border, he sees black people. We talked animatedly for a few hours about Afro-Mexicans who were a third of the population of Mexico at liberation from Spain in 1810 and whose history has been pointedly ignored south of the border.
L.A. is gearing up for the trial of killer BART cop Johannes Mehserle, Oscar Grant’s assassin, that will be held in the same court house where O.J. won acquittal — if it’s not moved to Ensenada, taking a cue from outgoing Governor Terminator’s plan to build California prisons south of the border.
Students at Cal State L.A., the most Chicano university in Califas, honed in attentively when I expounded on the revolution that is brewing down south. 1810-1910-2010 – every hundred years on the tenth year of the century, Mexico explodes in violent social upheaval and even the Wall Street Journal is worried (see WSJ front pager January 15th.)
Looking at Obamalandia through the eyes of students is a useful handle for understanding what comes next. Classes and services have been bludgeoned by budget cuts and the profs at Cal State furlough one day a week to make ends meet in this damaged economy that the President lies is booming again because only a half a million workers filed first time unemployment claims last month. The light at the end of the tunnel is a bullet train pointed straight at the heart of the people.
All of this bad news is healthy for fightback. The day I hit El Ley, Muslim students at U.C.-Irvine rose up against the Israeli consul ten times in a single speech until the university president sicced the campus cops on them. The next day a whole coast away, kids at Georgetown shouted down General Betrayus. Throw in the cutbacks and the furloughs and the hopelessness and it could be a long, hot spring semester and it won’t be just because of global warming. I will do my best to fan the flames as I stumble front one campus to the next in the coming months.
On my last days in the late great golden state, I slept in a yoga house under a colorful banner of Ganesh, the elephant guy who gets fat eating others’ obstacles. Lets hope he’s on my side. A year ago I was sentenced to death and although I’m still kicking, the future is laced with sharpened punji sticks, not the least of which incubates on my liver.
Talking truth to power is still the best medicine to beat back Nuestra Senora Santa Muerte.
John Ross and The Monstruo will be visiting the Narciso Martinez Cultural Center in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley Sat. Feb 20th. The Monster Tour plays El Paso, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque from Feb. 21st-28th. Consult the Nation Books page for details or write firstname.lastname@example.org
El Monstruo: Dread & Redemption In Mexico City is a perverse love letter to the most contaminated, crime-ridden, corrupt and conflictive urban stain on the western side of the planet, where I have been touched to live for the past quarter of a century. My life is now hopelessly entangled with the life of this monster of a megalopolis.
El Monstruo was indeed a monstrous book to write. The slagheap of materials that I sucked up — hundreds of volumes of history, slagheaps of newspapers, mountains of personal recollections — fill my threadbare room at the Hotel Isabel in the old quarter of this city from floor to ceiling. The narrative I have assembled spans 50,000,000 years give or take a few minutes, dating from the Paleocene to last spring’s Swine Flu panic with significant stops for the doomed Aztec empire, the war of liberation from Spain, the Mexican revolution of 1910-1919, the student massacres of the ’60s, the Great 1985 earthquake, and the erratic governance of the electoral left for the past 12 years.
It is a long story.
The Mexican Revolution was in many ways a war against Mexico City, a capital for which the rest of the country was named and from which all power continues to radiate. The great revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa viewed Mexico City as a Sodom & Gomorrah that had to be destroyed if the country was to be redeemed and they did their best to do so. The excerpt that follows speaks to the Monstruo on the eve of the downfall of dictator Porfirio Diaz and the inception of the first great revolution of the landless in the Americas.
WHAT THE LAND WAS LIKE
Back home in Morelos, Emiliano Zapata was elected village leader, entrusted to recover Anenecuilco’s lost lands, granted to the Indians by the Crown in the 17th century. The sugar planters, many of whom were foreigners, had gobbled up the Nahuas’ land and water without remorse.
“Land and Water” was in fact the slogan of Madero ally Vicente Leyva’s campaign for governor of Morelos in 1909 against Díaz’s gallo (rooster), Pablo Escandón, the scion of an immensely wealthy criollo family that had first struck it rich in real estate during Juárez’s Reform, and also a sugar planter who rarely bothered to visit the tiny state. Zapata aligned Anenecuilco’s fortunes with Leyva and Madero. Escandón won by a landslide of course, without ever having to leave El Monstruo. To Zapata, Escandón WAS El Monstruo.
By 1910, 2 percent of all Mexicans owned all the land—save for 70 million hectares held by foreigners with family names like Rockefeller and Hearst and Morgan. One hundred percent of the good farming land in Morelos was occupied by 17 haciendas operated by absentee patrones (bosses). The haciendas sucked up all the groundwater, leaving villages like Anenecuilco dry as a bone. The unequal distribution of water continues a century hence. Wealthy Chilangos have overrun Morelos with their golf courses and palatial second homes, leaving the villages just as thirsty as they were in 1910.
Years ago, I rented a large house in Olintepec, a colonia that shares ejido land (communal farmland) with Anenecuilco, and was able to see how the land must have looked to Zapata when he rode through these fields. I walked out through the tall sugar cane along the irrigation canals to the Caudillo’s humble adobe home, now a museum, on a back street in Anenecuilco, and each young horseman barreling down the country lanes could have been the Caudillo all over again.
But an hour and fifty-five minutes later, when I stepped down off a bus in the belly of the Monstruo, the urban hurly-burly swirling all around me, I always got a whiff of the profound culture shock Emiliano Zapata must have suffered when he was forced to visit this city he so detested.
Francisco Madero’s call for the revolution to commence November 20, 1910, stirred sparse response. Up in Puebla, Díaz’s agents murdered Madero’s lieutenant, the revolutionary shoemaker Aquiles Serdán, and his family, two nights before the festivities were slated to kick in. In Morelos, Zapata and the peasant army he had assembled bided their time, waiting to see who would make the first move first.
Mexicans are never on time. Finally, in January, Doroteo Arango AKA Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a popular Chihuahua desperado of Hobsbawmian proportions, and his ruthless cohort Pascual Orozco, declared themselves in revolt and were immediately joined by the Maderista governor of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza and his “Constitutionalist” Army. Díaz’s Federales were beaten back at Ciudad Guerrero, Mal Paso, and Casas Grandes. Villa laid siege to Ciudad Juárez on the border, the vital railhead that linked Mexico City to the United States and was the lifeblood of the country’s commercial transactions.
By February 1911, with the synchronicity that sometimes made the Mexican Revolution work, the Zapatistas had advanced to Xochimilco. Workers in the heart of the city suffering from what the Porfirian rag El Imparcial tagged ”huelga-manía” or strike fever, declared seven major strikes that paralyzed the Monstruo in 1910–1911. Demonstrators were emboldened enough to assemble in the Zócalo and shout “Death to the Dictator!” beneath Don Porfirio’s balcony by spring. Others menaced his mansion on Cadena Street in the Centro Histórico and were repelled by the gendarmes.
Pablo Escandón fled Mexico for Europe, kvetching to the press that Mexico had fallen into “niggerdom.” Don Porfirio’s class of people was stunned by this threat to their carefree lives and comforts. Indeed, the leisure class had not changed all that much from when the criollos and Gachupines cowered inside the city as Hidalgo’s Indiada advanced on El Monstruo.
After three and a half decades in power, the Dictator remained a figure of adoration in the mansions of La Condesa. For the university students, largely the sons of the ruling class, Don Porfi was the epitome of modernity. To them, Villa and Orozco and Carranza were the Barbarians of the North, Zapata the Attila of the South, and they cast the Dictator as the savior of civilization as they knew it.
But the old man was 81, and it hurt just to keep a stiff upper lip. The medals weighed heavily on his chest. He knew in his heart of hearts what his adorers could not admit—the jig was really up. Ciudad Juárez was days away, even via the modern rail system he had built, and the army’s mobility to supply his troops was restricted. Don Porfiriopochtli, as political cartoonists were drawing him now, had, like the Aztecs, expanded his empire to a point where he could no longer defend it.
In May, the Dictator sent his vice president, Francisco León de la Barra, to the north to negotiate an easy exit to his 34 years on the throne of Mocuhtezuma, and on May 24, 1911, having brokered an agreement with Madero that León de la Barra would remain as provisional president for the next six months, the old man set sail from Puerto, México, for Paris, France, aboard the German steamer Ypringa with this famous caution: “The wild beasts have been loosed. Let us see who will cage them now.”
Wild celebrations broke out in Mexico City as if to underscore the old man’s dictum—15,000 workers invaded the Chamber of Deputies and marched on the National Palace, where the Dictator’s police opened fire, wounding scores. The offices of the Porfirian mouthpiece El Imparcial were set afire. By July, the Monstruo was shut down by a general strike. The wrath of the Mexicans had indeed been loosed, and Madero’s intentions to cage it up again would dictate the next phase of Mexico’s cannibal revolution.
THE GODS ARE SKEPTICAL
After a discreet pause to make sure the old man was really gone, Francisco Madero started off on the long train ride from Ciudad Juárez to Mexico City in early June. There were many treacheries up ahead and he had plenty of time to consider his options as the train lurched from state to state. As he passed through Zacatecas and Aguascalientes, jubilant mobs overran the train depots waving Mexican flags and shouting “¡Vivas!” until they were hoarse and Madero’s train long out of sight.
The presumptive president of Mexico arrived in the capital at Buenavista terminal, the great northern station, on the morning of June 9, and the tumult was overwhelming. Kandell compares it to Juárez’s return to rekindle the republic. I stare at the news photographs. People are excited, even exhilarated. They push and jostle for a view of the little Lenin look-alike. But some are more reserved. They stand back from the jubilant throng. They have come more out of curiosity than conviction. Their faces seem to ask, what next?
From Buenavista, Madero rode through the city in a Dupont motorcar, the sidewalks bursting with well-wishers and flag wavers. Many residents of the metropolis were relieved not so much because of the hope the little man brought with him as for the fact that this change of power had taken place with a minimum of damage to themselves and their city.
When Madero entered the old city for the final jog to the National Palace, he mounted a white horse. In the Palacio, he met with León de la Barra and they reaffirmed their bargain—Porfirio’s stooge would govern for the next six months while Madero campaigned for presidential elections set for November 2. The two emerged on the president’s balcony and “¡Vivas!” erupted from the joyous mob that filled the Zócalo below.
But the old Gods of Tenochtitlán were skeptical about Francisco Madero’s grasp on the presidency. At 6:00 that afternoon they rendered their verdict, upstaging his triumphal arrival in the capital with a deadly earthquake that surged out of the Pacific Ocean along the Jalisco coast and wrought havoc throughout that western state, killing 400 in Zapopan and setting off the Volcano of Colima before smashing into the north of Mexico City and leveling Santa María de la Ribera and San Cosme. There were no Richter scales in those days to measure the quake, but an uncounted number of lives were lost in the capital—perhaps hundreds, reported El Imparcial, which published three extras that day but paid scant attention to Madero’s arrival, burying the story beneath the fold.
Hear Ross read from El Monstruo and sign copies Nov. 18 at Modern Times, 888 Valencia, 7:30 p.m.
MEXICO CITY — Never before has the contrast between the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual clambake of the capitalist class in Davos Switzerland, and the World Social Forum (WSF), created a decade ago to beat back the corporate globalization of the Planet Earth, been quite so stark.
While the moribund masters of the universe met on their ice mountain in the midst of the most chilling world-wide depression in a century, largely triggered by the overweening greed of those in attendance, tens of thousands samba’ed in the tropical heat of the Amazon city of Belem to celebrate the demise of capitalism. Among those on hand at the WSF dance party were presidents Chavez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva. Lula, who is usually a devoted Davos-goer, eschewed this year’s funerary event to avoid the stench that inevitably results from rubbing shoulders with mummies.
“The God of the Market has been broken,” the one-time Sao Paolo metalworker proclaimed to tens of thousands in Belem. Writing in the Mexican daily La Jornada, Luis Hernandez Navarro pointed out that it was precisely the social forces represented by the WSF that propelled Latin America’s social democratic presidents into power.
Indeed, the only two Latin heads of state to attend the caviar and champagne-laced charade in Davos were Colombia’s widely-disparaged Alvaro Uribe and Mexico’s questionably-elected president Felipe Calderon, both of them Washington’s darlings. Not even freshman U.S. president Obama, who recently lambasted the machinations of the same breed of bankers who gather each year on the ice mountain as “shameful,” showed up in Switzerland, an event that his predecessor in power George Bush never missed.
Felipe Calderon’s trip to Davos got off on an inauspicious foot. On the very day he flew out to the WEF, Bank of Mexico president Guillermo Ortiz confirmed that his country was in full-blown recession. For months, Calderon and his obscenely obese Secretary of Finance Augustin Carstens have characterized Mexico’s economic health as only suffering from “a little cough” (“catarrito.”) According to Bank of Mexico prognostications, the Aztec Nation will suffer negative growth in 2009 (-0.8% to -1.8%.)
The news hit Felipe like an ice ball from hell.
Seeking to put a happy face on his country’s dismal future, Calderon championed Mexico’s 1.5% 2008 growth rate but fooled few – Mexico’s anemic performance last year put it in 24th place out of 24 Latin American economies in the International Monetary Fund’s rankings, even behind Haiti, the basket case of the Americas. The IMF is predicting 1.1% growth for Latin America in 2009 and, like Ortiz, calculates that Mexico will fall into negative numbers.
The Mexican president’s delusional optimism in the face of so bleak an outlook played to incredulous audiences at Davos. Calderon also sought to blunt the recent blockbuster report of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that Mexico is a potentially “failed” state by handing out trinkets like baseball caps bearing the ambiguous legend “It’s All In The Trust.” The giveaway (“magic spikes” to keep the mummies from slipping on Davos’s icy streets were also distributed) came during a session at which Calderon flogged Mexico’s chances of weathering the current economic turmoil – the Mexican president’s talk was slugged “Riders On The Storm,” a title plagiarized from the Doors’ 1971 apocalyptical anthem about a cowboy spree killer. Lead singer Jim Morrison was reportedly heard thrashing about wildly in his Paris grave.
As a bonus attraction, Calderon teamed with former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, now head of Yale University’s Institute for Globalization Studies, in an act conducted entirely in broken English that verged on tragicomedy. Zedillo, who coined the term “globalphobics” in reference to WSF types at the 1996 Davos get-down, revealed that the bank bail-out he sponsored during Mexico’s mid-1990s meltdown and dubbed FOBAPROA, has drained 20% of his country’s gross domestic product (PIB), bragging that the 400 trillion peso outlay was triple that of what the Bush-Obama bail-out has cost U.S. taxpayers.
As might be anticipated, the Calderon-Zedillo act did not play well on the homefront. While the Mexican presidents cavorted with the living dead in Davos, a half million of their compatriots were marching through the streets of Mexico City to protest the economic wreckage the neo-liberal ethos has wrought here. On January 25th, former left presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from whom Calderon stole the 2006 election, and his Movement to Defend Mexico’s Oil & The Popular Economy assembled upwards of 200,000 in the great central Zocalo plaza. Five days later, farmers and trade unionists matched that outpouring to denounce the damage done by the current crisis.
Among the crisis indicators: 6% inflation, the highest in ten years, and 340,000 jobs lost on Calderon’s watch. (Calderon campaigned as “the president of employment.”)
Just what Mexico’s unemployment numbers are is deeply obfuscated. Government bean-counters at the National Statistical and Geographic Institute (INEGI) claim it is no more than 4% – but under INEGI parameters, anyone who worked for more than an hour in the informal economy during the previous week is considered employed.
Utilizing such criteria, the emblematic apple sellers of the 1930’s Great Depression would not be determined to be jobless.
On the other side of the ledger, Enrique Galvan, who authors La Jornada’s “Money” column, calculates that 70% of the nation’s 45 million-strong workforce does not have a steady job. A maquiladora industry that assembles consumer goods for the ravished U.S. market and which generated a million jobs in the best of times has gone kaplooy and the Big Seven automakers (including Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Volkswagen) have shut down their plants for the duration of the downturn.
Meanwhile, workers’ pensions, privatized under Zedillo, have gone up in smoke, with those paying in losing up to 30% of their retirement funds in the past six months. To compound the devastation, the peso has sunk to record lows, having been devalued by 32% since last August 4th when it weighed in at 9.87 against the dollar. At this writing, 14.78 pesos will buy you one dollar Americano and the exchange rate is climbing toward 15.
Nonetheless. Mexico’s banks, rescued by Zedillo’s 15-cypher bailout and subsequently sold to transnational financial conglomerates, registered a 38% profit increase in 2008.
The current blasted economic landscape here bears striking similarities to another period of devastating downturn a hundred years ago. The 1907-08 depression was trip-wired when commodity prices collapsed and money dried up, casting tens of thousands of Mexican workers into the streets and accentuating the monstrous divide between rich and poor. To counter working class rage, dictator Porfirio Diaz cranked up repression, massacring hundreds of striking textile workers in Rio Blanco Veracruz and miners in Cananea Sonora. Synchronistically, workers at Cananea, the eighth largest copper pit in the world, have been on strike for the past 18 months in spite of Calderon’s efforts to break the walkout.
Despite the shattered economy and his deep-rooted unpopularity after 34 years in power, Diaz decided to run for re-election in 1910, stealing the vote that June and jailing opposition leader Francisco Madero, a role model for Lopez Obrador. To celebrate his “victory,” Porfirio Diaz threw a huge party to mark Mexico’s first 100 years of independence from Spain, expending the nation’s entire social budget on useless monuments, many of them lined up along Mexico City’s Champs D’Elysie, the Paseo de la Reforma.
The pageantry culminated on Independence Day, September 16th with the installation of a gilded Angel of Independence on that glittering boulevard. Two months later, the Mexican revolution, led by Madero, exploded, and Diaz was forced to flee the country.
Just before Felipe Calderon took off to tete-a-tete with the dead in Davos, amidst patriotic bombast and flowery fireworks, the Mexican president announced the construction of the Arc of the Bicentennial to be inaugurated September 16th 2010, commemorating both the 200th year of Mexican independence and the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican revolution. Following the Porfirian model, the Arc of the Bi-Centennial, whose cost was unannounced, will be built at the foot of the Paseo de la Reforma.
Mexico’s political metabolism seems to break out in insurgencies every 100 years on the 10th year of the century. In 1810, the country priest Miguel Hidalgo launched the struggle for independence from the Crown. In 1910, Francisco Madero ignited the fuse of the epoch Mexican revolution.
At this writing, there are less than 330 days until 2010.
MEXICO CITY — As Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the leftist firebrand whom millions of Mexicans consider their legitimate president, made his way to the podium in the packed Zocalo plaza here March 18th, the 70th anniversary of the expropriation and nationalization of an oil industry now threatened with re-privatization, hundreds of senior citizens, AMLO’s firmest followers, rose as one from their seats of honor at the side of the stage, raised their frail fists in salute, and chanted that, despite the cobwebs of old age, they do not forget. “Tenemos Memoria!” We Have Memory!
What did they remember? Tiburcio Quintanilla, 83, remembers how when President Lazaro Cardenas called upon his countrymen and women to donate to a fund to pay indemnities to the gringo oil companies, he went with his father to the Palace of Bellas Artes and stood on line for hours with their chickens, their contribution to taking back “our chapopote (petroleum).” I was born in the same week that Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil, I tell Don Tiburcio. I’m only a kid.
Up on the same stage from which he directed the historic seven-week siege of the capital after the Great Fraud of 2006 that awarded the presidency to his right-wing rival Felipe Calderon, AMLO looked more grizzled, weather-beaten, a little hoarse after two years on the road relentlessly roaming the Mexican outback bringing his message to “los de abajo” (those down below) and signing up nearly 2,000,000 new constituents for his National Democratic Convention (CND), which is increasingly embroiled in a bitter battle for control of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD.)
Now Lopez Obrador has thrust himself into the leadership of the movement to defend the nation’s oil industry (PEMEX) from privatization in the guise of Calderon’s energy-reform legislation.
Calderon and his cohorts seek to persuade Mexicans that PEMEX is broken, the reserves running out, and the nation’s only hope lies in deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling for what the Calderonistas describe as “The Treasure of Mexico” in a widely distributed, lavishly produced infomercial, will require an “association” with Big Oil. But as many experts, such as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the president who expropriated the oil in the first place, point out, it is not at all certain that these purported deep sea reserves are actually in Mexican waters.
AMLO’s March 18th “informative assembly” of the National Democratic Convention was certainly the most emotional since he convoked the CND on Independence Day in September 2006, after the courts had designated Calderon as president. Poised under a monumental tri-color flag that furled and unfurled dramatically in the spring zephyrs, and addressing tens of thousands of loyalists in the heart of the Mexican body politic, Lopez Obrador told the story of Mexico’s oil.
Oil is a patriotic lubricant here, and AMLO is imbued in what historians once called revolutionary nationalism, the apogee of which was Lazaro Cardenas’s March 18th 1938 order expropriating the holdings of 17 Anglo-American oil companies who were about to secede from the union and declare themselves “The Republic of the Gulf of Mexico.” AMLO recalled how the companies had defied a Supreme Court order to pay $26 million USD to the nation’s oil workers leaving General Cardenas (he had been a revolutionary general) no option but to take back Mexico’s oil. How patriotic Mexicans like Don Tiburcio and his father lined up to pay off the debt with their chickens and family jewels. Cardenas’s subsequent creation of a national oil corporation, “Petrolios Mexicanos” or PEMEX, was seen as the guarantee of a great future for Mexico.
But things have worked out differently.
“Privatization is corruption!” AMLO harangues, “The oil is ours! La Patria No Se Vende!”
“La Patria No Se Vende, La Patria Se Defiende!” the crowd roars back, “The country is not for sale, The country is to defend!” “Pais Petrolero, Pueblo Sin Dinero” – “Country With Oil, People Without Money!”
Lopez Obrador, or “El Peje,” as his followers affectionately nickname him, warms to the task, outlining plans for a new “civil insurrection” that will be led by “women commandos” who will encircle congress on the day energy reform legislation is introduced, shut down banks, the Stock Exchange, the airports, and block highways. If all that doesn’t work, AMLO calls for a national strike. All of this projected and highly illegal activism would unfold “peacefully, without violence” – El Peje is a disciple of Gandhi and often cites Dr. King in his calls to action.
Indeed, Lopez Obrador takes pains to warn the petroleum defenders about government provocateurs and those who would foment violence, perhaps a message to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which has thrice bombed PEMEX pipelines in the past year.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is at his incendiary best as a leader of social upheaval. During the post-electoral struggle, he put 2,000,000 souls on the streets of Mexico City July 30th 2006, the largest political demonstration in the history of this contentious republic. Back in 1996, this reporter shadowed Lopez Obrador as he led Chontal Indian farmers in blocking 60 PEMEX oil platforms that had been contaminating their cornfields in his native Tabasco, a movement that catapulted AMLO into the presidency of the PRD, later to become the wildly popular mayor of Mexico City and the de facto winner of the 2006 presidential election.
Although Lopez Obrador once seemed assured of his party’s nomination in 2012, he is now challenged by his successor as the capital’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, who stood stolidly at his side during the March 18th convocation.
While Lopez Obrador held forth in the center of the republic, its titular president Felipe Calderon campaigned in El Peje’s home turf of Tabasco, the site of Mexico’s largest land-based deposits, touting the “association of capitals” as the key to the “Treasure of Mexico” and swearing up and down that he had no intention of privatizing PEMEX. The idea instead was to make the laws governing oil revenues more “flexible” (“flexabilizar”) and build a “strategic alliance” with the global oil titans.
To mark the 70th anniversary of General Cardenas’s brave act of revolutionary nationalism, Calderon shared a stage with Carlos Romero Deschamps, the boss of the corruption-ridden oil workers union, and Francisco Labastida, the once-ruling PRI party’s losing 2000 presidential candidate and now chairman of the Senate Energy Commission where the energy reform legislation will most probably be introduced.
In 2000, PEMEX illegally funneled $110,000,000 USD through Romero’s union into Labastida’s campaign coffers, a scandal known here as PEMEXgate, which has since been swept into the sea.
While Calderon embraced these scoundrels in the port of Paradise Tabasco, a thousand AMLO supporters were kept at bay a mile from the ceremony by a phalanx of federal police.
The most glaring absentee at the Tabasco séance was Calderon’s dashing young Secretary of the Interior, Juan Camilo Mourino, his former chief of staff who the president appointed to the second most powerful position in Mexico’s political hierarchy this past January to oversee negotiations between the parties on energy reform legislation. But Mourino’s creds were seriously damaged this past February 24th when Lopez Obrador released documents revealing that the then-future interior secretary’s family business had been awarded four choice PEMEX transportation contracts while he presided over the Chamber of Deputies Energy Commission.
The GES Corporation also won four other PEMEX contracts when Mourino was Calderon’s right-hand man during the much-questioned president’s stint as the nation’s energy secretary in the previous administration. AMLO accuses Mourino, who was born in Spain and may still be a Spanish citizen, of cutting a pre-privatization deal with the Spanish energy giant Repsol.
There were notable absences at AMLO’s big revival in the Zocalo too, among them Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the scion of the general and founder of the PRD whose moral authority has been greatly eroded in recent years. Estranged from his protégé Lopez Obrador, whose cause he did not leap to after the 2006 election was stolen, Cardenas chose to “defend the petrolio” in his home state of Michoacan, to which he has semi-retired and where his son Lazaro, grandson of the “Tata,” is the outgoing governor.
Although young Lazaro has endorsed “the association of private capital” in PEMEX, his father has hedged on Calderon’s privatization plans, reserving judgment until legislation is actually presented. Cuauhtemoc has, however, urged that Mexico and the U.S. first settle the ownership of deep-water tracts in the Gulf before any legislation is ratified.
Deep-water exploration requires an 11-year construction and drilling cycle before wells come on line. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Mexico has only ten years of proven reserves left.
Calderon’s legislative package is liable to steer away from constitutional amendment required for privatization and focus on secondary laws, a legaloid move that could take the wind out of Lopez Obrador’s sails. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the PRI senate leader whose support Calderon needs to pass energy reform (not all PRIistas are expected to back it) once warned that a strong measure would “hand the presidency” to AMLO.
The other prominent no-show in Lopez Obrador’s revival tent in the Zocalo was Jesus Ortega, the front-runner for the PRD presidency in March 16th party elections. Ortega heads up the rival New Left faction, a group that is prone to negotiate with Calderon’s representatives despite AMLO’s insistence that the PRD continue to refuse to recognize what he labels the “spurious” president. Lopez Obrador backed former Mexico City interim mayor, the roly-poly ex-commie Alejandro Encinas in the race for the party presidency.
Ortega, a PRD senator, refused to attend the Zocalo rally because he said he feared for his personal safety after other leaders of the New Left faction (AKA “Los Chuchos” because so many top New Leftites are named Jesus – “chucho” is also an endearing name for a dog) had been roughed up by Lopez Obrador supporters during an anti-privatization demonstration at the PEMEX office towers some weeks earlier.
The head-to-head between Ortega and Encinas turned toxic overnight with mutual accusations of vote stealing, vote stuffing, vote buying, vote burning, voters “razored” from the voting lists, fake ballots and phony counts flying as if the March 16th debacle was a funny mirror reflection of July 2nd 2006, when Lopez Obrador was stripped of the presidency by Calderon’s chicanery. The PRD implosion has stoked the party’s enemies like Televisa, the TV tyrant, which devotes half its primetime news hour to the shenanigans. The television giant blacked out all news of similar fraud in the 2006 presidential election.
It is long-standing tradition that PRD internal elections will inevitably turn into a “desmadre” (disgrace.) Similar desmadres occurred in 1996, 1999, and again in 2002, the year Ortega first tried to take control after Rosario Robles, Cardenas’s successor as Mexico City mayor, bought the party presidency – her campaign was bankrolled by a crooked construction contractor who filmed videos of her go-fors pocketing boodles of bills with which he later tried to blackmail the PRD in general and Lopez Obrador in particular. “The horror is interminable,” laments Miguel Angel Velazquez who pens the “Lost City” column for the left daily La Jornada, a PRD paper.
The legitimacy of the March 16th results can be measured by the mechanism with which they will be determined. At the helm of the PRD’s internal electoral commission is one Arturo “The Penguin” Nunez, once the tainted president of the Federal Electoral Institute during his life as a PRIista, and the architect of countless PRI frauds, including one against Lopez Obrador in their native Tabasco.
In truth, Lopez Obrador has been running away from the “horror” of the PRD since the formation of the CND, a crusade to weld those who voted for AMLO in 2006 into a force for social and political change, and his base is now thought to be wider than that of the party. Should Encinas prevail in the brawl for the PRD presidency, Lopez Obrador’s hold on the party would still be tenuous – the Chuchos appear to have wrested many state elections – and he will look to the CND as he battles the privatizers. Indeed. The announced encirclement of congress by “woman commandos” will put pressure on the FAP – the Broad Political Front of left legislators led by the PRD – to pay attention and hold the line against privatization.
The Party of the Democratic Revolution was the Phoenix bird born in fire after the PRI stole the 1988 “presidenciales” from Cardenas. Its 16 original “currents” (now called “tribes”) included ex-PRIistas like Cardenas and Lopez Obrador, ex-communists (like Encinas), urban activists, peasants’ organizations, social democrats, and other left opportunists (like Ortega.)
In its early years, the party sought to define what it would be: a confluence of grassroots movements that ran candidates for public office as one means of achieving social change? Or an exclusively electoral formation intent on obtaining its quotient of power in which the party became an end in itself? Although the PRD has devolved into the latter, Lopez Obrador’s 2006 campaign reinvigorated the activist side of the equation.
Now, leading the defense of Mexican oil against the privatizers, AMLO has leveraged himself back into the political spotlight, and once again, is leading a reinvigorated challenge to the faltering Calderon who desperately needs to make good on his pledge to his Washington masters to privatize PEMEX.
John Ross is back in Mexico City purportedly working on a book about Mexico City. Write him at email@example.com if you have further information.
MEXICO CITY – Flash back to October 27th, 2006. American photojournalist Brad Will is splayed out on a sidewalk in Oaxaca, Mexico, mortally wounded by the pistoleros of rogue governor Ulisis Ruiz during tumultuous street battles in that southern city. His killers have never been prosecuted.
Now fast forward to this past January 10th. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the unctuous leader of the once-ruling (71 years) PRI party faction in the Mexican Senate, announces to a gaggle of reporters that the PRI is prepared to back President Felipe Calderon and his right-wing PAN in passing an “energy reform” package that would permit transnational corporations to generate 49% of the nation’s electricity and open PEMEX, the state petroleum monopoly expropriated from its Anglo-American owners in 1938 and nationalized by President Lazaro Cardenas, to such oil titans as Exxon, British Petroleum, and Shell. Beltrones’ personal preference to initiate the proposed “association of private capitals”: Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company which opened itself to private investment back in 1997 and which has extensive experience in deep water drilling.
What is the connection between these two apparently unconnected events? Just this: the cover-up of Brad Wills’ death smoothed the way for the PRI-PAN partnership to privatize PEMEX.
Although his killers were plainly identified as plainclothes police on Ulisis’s payroll, Wills’ inconvenient death was ignored by then-president Vicente Fox despite demands by human rights and journalist protection organizations for a full investigation of the killing, one of 26 perpetrated by Ruiz’s death squads between August and October of 2006. Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, followed suit and stonewalled an inquiry into Wills’ murder. Similarly, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico never sought justice for a slain citizen despite the personal pleas of the dead man’s family.
Why such studied indifference?
Because holding Governor Ruiz, a prominent PRIista, accountable for the killing(s) would have upset the burgeoning alliance between the PRI and the PAN to ratify Calderon’s legislative agenda, the most pertinent item of which was “energy reform” i.e. the privatization of PEMEX.
Embassy inaction on Brad Wills’ murder followed the same logic. As U.S. ambassador, Bush crony Tony Garza is charged with representing U.S. interests in Mexico and Washington’s interest in opening up Mexican oil to U.S. transnationals far outweighs its interest in bringing the killers of a freelance anarchist reporter to justice. The U.S. has long contemplated a North American Energy Alliance that would guarantee access to Mexican and Canadian reserves.
To this end, Washington has played an active role in facilitating the impending privatization of Petrolios Mexicanos. Over the past months, U.S. transnationals and their associates in government have orchestrated an extraordinary campaign to hoodwink Mexicans into swallowing the lie that PEMEX is hopelessly broken and must be opened to private capital forthwith for the salvation of the Fatherland.
Last July, ex-Federal Reserve czar Alan Greenspan was beamed into Mexico for a teleconference with the nation’s most exalted business council to deliver an ultimatum: if PEMEX was not fixed quickly, the country faced fiscal crisis. Indeed, the petroleum giant (the 11th largest on the planet) generates 40% of Mexico’s total budget and 100% of a social budget that keeps 70,000,000 Mexicans who live in and around the poverty line, in relative quiescence. By “fixing” PEMEX, Greenspan meant privatizing it.
It should be noted that Alan Greenspan is an expert on fiscal crises – his monetary policies just helped to tripwire such a crisis in his own country, the sub-prime disaster.
The Greenspan game plan was echoed December 13th in a memo issued by the International Monetary Fund urgently counseling legislation to allow private capital into PEMEX before the government went broke. Garza’s embassy chimed in the next day, warning of massive capital flight if the Mexican Congress did not pass Calderon’s “energy reform” package. On December 19th, The Economist, which ironically was founded on the fortune reaped by Anglo oil companies in Mexico that eventually became British Petroleum, opined that “the obvious solution to the disaster of PEMEX is to privatize.” Finally, the U.S. Department of Energy delivered the death knell on January 9th: the lack of investment in PEMEX’s Exploration and Exploitation (PEP) division spelled energy catastrophe – not a good sign for Washington’s North American Energy Alliance strategy. On January 10th, the PRI came on board to back Calderon’s “energy reform.”
Despite the Jeremiads, the putsch for privatization has lost considerable steam globally. In fact, a moderate swing to nationalization seems to be in process. Amidst prognoses of irreparable damage to the Venezuelan economy, Hugo Chavez renationalized sectors of PDVSA, the state oil company, and ran a 12% surge in domestic growth in 2007 in spite of it. Bolivia has renationalized natural gas production and Ecuador is on the brink of doing so. The most successful renationalization has been in Putin’s Russia where Gazoprom and Yukos became major world players overnight.
According to Mexican strategic resource writer Alfredo Jalife, 32% of the world’s petroleum supply is in the hands of private transnationals, 20% is nationalized or in the process of being renationalized, and the rest is held by mixed state-private corporations.
But despite their exaggerated anguish at an energy meltdown if PEMEX is not privatized, the doomsayers do have a point: Petrolios Mexicanos is in deep doo-doo. Daily accidents such as the unquenchable fire that took 21 workers’ lives on a Caribbean oil platform and contaminated surrounding waters last fall, pipeline bombings by the guerrilla Popular Revolutionary Army, and the failure to modernize infrastructure – no new refinery has been built in 20 years – is stark evidence of corporate corrosion.
Despite 100-weak-dollar-a-barrel prices (Mexican light crude tops out around $80 USD these days) that generated $2.3 billion in enhanced revenues during the first ten months of 2007, lack of refining capacity forces PEMEX to shell out $5 billion Yanqui dollars each year to import 40% of its gasoline needs – which is to say that for every $1 of the increased revenues PEMEX takes in, two bucks go out for gas.
Calderon’s solution? The so-called “Gasolinazo”, the President’s gift to the driving public on January 6th, the Day of the Kings (Mexican Christmas), that will increase prices at the pump incrementally each month indefinitely. Increased transportation costs are expected to impact food prices across the board.
But the bad news doesn’t stop there. The big battle over Mexican oil is really a battle over crumbs. If U.S. Department of Energy calculations are on target, Mexico only has 12.9 billion barrels in proven reserves, depletion of which could turn PEMEX into a net importer by 2018 if no new petroleum sources are uncorked before then – although Mexico is the sixth largest international oil producer, it has only 1% of the planet’s proven reserves.
With the Cantarell field in the Sound of Campeche, the magnum star of offshore production that has motored PEMEX since the 1990s, just about tapped out, the clock is ticking. To exacerbate this doomsday scenario, Mexico is pumping out what it has left at a record clip to capitalize on the booming barrel price – PEMEX now produces about 3.2 million barrels daily, fully 1.7 million of which are sent up the Gulf to the U.S., an export platform that is accelerating depletion and subsidizing Washington’s wars around the world.
Given this bleak picture, most experts concur that the only place PEMEX can go to drill for new reserves is deep water, five miles down in the Gulf of Mexico. The only catch is that Petrolios Mexicanos does not have deep water drilling capacity. That’s where Petrobras, as contemplated in the PRI/PAN privatization scheme, would come in handy.
What exactly constitutes privatization? Auctioning off the corporation from the top
to the highest bidder or selling it off piece by piece from the bottom? During 35 years of oil boom and bust, PEMEX has systematically dismantled its Exploration & Exploitation division and handed it over to transnational subcontractors, emphasizes Autonomous National University researcher John Saxe- Fernandez who heads up the UNAM’s Strategic Resources Institute. At the top of Saxe-Fernandez’s list of prominent subcontractors is Halliburton with 159 PEMEX contacts since 2000 worth $1.2 billion USD – Halliburton moved into Mexico in the 1990s during the development of Cantarell when Dick Cheney was CEO.
But subcontracting out choice contracts goes back generations. George Bush pere partnered with PEMEX director Jorge Serrano (who later went to jail) in Zapata Offshore, a drilling outfit that operated in the Sound of Campeche in the 1970s. Today, virtually every major transnational driller has a piece of the Mexican action.
A recent daily La Jornada investigation by energy reporter Israel Rodriguez revealed the signing of a series of secret “pre-privatization” covenants to exploit Mexican fields with Shell (the mysterious “Project Margarita”), Exxon, Petrobras, Nexen (Canada), and StatsOil (Norway.) The contracts, accessed through Mexico’s Freedom of Information Act, contained clauses whose contents cannot be divulged for the next five years.
The PRI/PAN energy scam is currently being hatched in the Mexican Senate’s Energy Commission chaired by Francisco Labastida, a former secretary of energy (as is Calderon) and the PRI’s losing presidential candidate in 2000. Those who have gotten a peek at the details label the energy reform legislation “privatization lite” with foot-in-the-door measures that will allow for the “association of private capital” in such areas as pipelines and refineries. The legislation stops short of amending the Mexican Constitution’s Article 27, which stipulates that the petroleum belongs to the nation.
Skirting a constitutional amendment will deny ammo to AMLO – leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who many believe was swindled out of the presidency in 2006 and who has emerged as the leader of the fight against privatization. This January, Lopez Obrador announced formation of a cross-party Movement In Defense of Petroleum whose battle cry is “Mexico is not for sale!”
The ex-presidential candidate proposes that PEMEX can raise sufficient revenues without opening itself up to private investment by simply cleaning house – the corporation has long been riddled with corruption, bribe-taking, kickbacks and rampant dirty dealing. For decades, the PRI siphoned off millions to finance its electoral campaigns – in 2000, $110 million USD in PEMEX funds were funneled through the gangster-ridden petroleum workers union into Labastida’s campaign coffers, the so-called “PEMEXgate” scandal.
AMLO has also long advocated the construction of three new refineries to offset the escautf8g cost of importing gasoline which he tags “an absurd situation” for the world’s sixth largest oil producer.
In the opposite corner, Lopez Obrador’s archrival Felipe Calderon insists that opening PEMEX to private capital will somehow make Petrolios Mexicanos “more Mexican” (“more productive, more competitive, more Mexicano.”)
“To hand over our natural resources to foreign powers is an act of treason,” AMLO responds, quoting the man who expropriated and nationalized Mexico’s petroleum in 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas. Lopez Obrador’s defense of Mexican oil will be a first test for the grassroots base the leftist has been cultivating since the tainted 2006 election and is sure to frame the next round of his ongoing bout with Calderon and his allies. AMLO, who in the past has been able to mobilize millions, is calling for nationwide protests this March 18th, the 70th anniversary of Cardenas’s expropriation.
Petroleum is a patriotic fluid here. Expropriation of the oil industry from the “extranjeros” (foreigners, literally “strangers”) was the high point of revolutionary nationalism in Mexico. But in a globalized world, the coming battle around the privatization of PEMEX is not just a Mexican matter anymore and, indeed, has far-reaching implications for the future of neo-liberalism in the Americas.
Sprawled in the Oaxaca street, the life blood leaking from him, the last thing Brad Will could have imagined is that in death he would become an accidental pawn to the transnationals’ ambitions to privatize Mexican oil. Tragically, in the end, that may be Wills’ most significant legacy.
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LA GARRUCHA CHIAPAS (Jan. 8th) – Dozens of Zapatista companeras, many of them Tzeltal Maya from the Chiapas lowlands decked out in rainbow-hued ribbons and ruffles, their dark eyes framed by pasamontanas and paliacates that masked their personas, emerged from the rustic auditorium to the applause of hundreds of international feminists gathered outside at the conclusion of the opening session of an all-women’s Encuentro hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) here at year’s end.
The Tzeltaleras’ line of march, which resembled a colorful if bizarre fashion parade, seemed an auspicious start to the rebels’ third “encounter” this year between “the peoples of the world” and the Zapatista communities and comandantes – an anti-globalization conclave last December and an Encuentro in defense of indigenous land this summer preceded the womens’ gathering.
Although the call for the event was issued under the pen of the EZLN’s quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, the author of a recently published erotic coffee table book in which his penis plays the role of a masked guerrillero, the impetus for the women’s Encuentro sprung from the loins of the Zapatista companeras.
Last July, at the conclusion of a meeting with farmers from a dozen counties in the hamlet with the haunting name of La Realidad (“The Reality”), a young rebel from that community, “Evarilda,” apparently without clearing the invitation with the EZLN’s General Command, called for the all-womens’ encounter, explaining that men were invited to help with the logistics but would be asked to stay home and mind the children and the farm animals while the women plotted against capitalism.
True to Evarilda’s word, at the December 29th-31st gathering, which drew 300-500 non-Mexican mostly women activists to this village, officially the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez, and which honored the memory of the late Comandanta Ramona (d. January 2006), men took a decidedly secondary role. Signs posted around the Caracol called “Resistance Until the New Dawn,” a sort of Zapatista cultural/political center, advised the companeros that they could not act as “spokespersons, translators, or representatives in the plenary sessions.” Instead, their activities should be confined “to preparing and serving food, washing dishes, sweeping, cleaning out the latrines, fetching firewood, and minding the children.”
Indeed, some young Zapatista men donned aprons imprinted with legends like “tomato” and “EZLN” to work in the kitchens. Meanwhile, older men sat quietly on wooden benches outside of the auditorium, sometimes signaling amongst themselves when a companera made a strong point or smiling in pride after a daughter or wife or sister or mother spoke their histories to the assembly.
The role of women within the Zapatista structure has been crucial since the rebellion’s gestation. When the founders of the EZLN, radicals from northern Mexican cities, first arrived in the Tzeltal-Tojolabal lowlands or Canadas of southeastern Chiapas, women were still being sold by their families as chattel in marriage. Often, they were kept monolingual by the husbands as a means of control, turned into baby factories, and had little standing in the community. Those from the outside offered independence and invited the young women to the training camps in the mountain where they would learn to wield a weapon and use a smattering of Spanish and become a part of the EZLN’s fighting force. Fourteen years ago, on January 1st 1994, when the Zapatistas seized the cities of San Cristobal and Ocosingo and five other county seats, women comprised a third of the rebel army. Women fighters were martyred in the bloody battle for Ocosingo.
Key to bringing the companeras to the rebel cause was “The Revolutionary Law of Women,” officially promulgated that first January 1st from the balcony of the San Cristobal city hall, which decreed that women should have control over their own lives and their bodies. The law, which had been carried into the Indian communities by Comandantas Susana and Ramona, often meeting with hostility from the companeros, was “our toughest battle” Marcos would later note.
Integrating women into the military structure, which was not tied to local community, proved easier than cultivating participation in the civil structure, which was rooted in the life of the villages. Although women occupied five seats on the 19-member Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI), the EZLN’s General Command, their numbers fell far shorter in 29 autonomous municipal councils and the five Juntas de Buen Gobierno (“Good Government Committees”) which administrate Zapatista regional autonomy.
But as the Zapatista social infrastructure grew, women became health and education promoters and leaders in the commissions that planned these campaigns and their profile has improved in the JBGs and autonomias.
Women’s Lib a la Zapatista has been boosted by the rebels’ prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in their communities. Whereas many inland Maya towns like San Juan Chamula are saturated in alcohol, with soaring rates of spousal and child abuse, the Zapatista zone has the lowest abuse indicators in the state, according to numbers offered by the womens’ commission of the Chiapas state congress. As a state, Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of feminicides in the Mexican union – 1456 women were murdered here between 1993 and 2004, more than doubling Chihuahua (604) in which the notorious muertas of Ciudad Juarez are recorded. The low incidence of violence against women in the zone of Zapatista influence is more remarkable because much of the lowland rebel territory straddles the Guatemalan border, a country where 500 women are murdered each year.
With the men tending the kids and cleaning latrines, the women told their stories in the plenaries. Many of the younger companeras like Evarilda had grown up in the rebellion – which is now in its 24th year (14 on public display) – and spoke of learning to read and write in rebel schools and of their work as social promoters or as teachers or as farmers and mothers. Zapatista grandmothers told of the first years of the rebellion and veteran comandantas like Susana, who spoke movingly of her longtime companera Ramona, “the smallest of the small,” recalled how in the war, the men and the women learned to share housekeeping tasks like cooking and washing clothes.
“Many of the companeros still do not want to understand our demands,” Comandanta Sandra admonished, “but we cannot struggle against the mal gobierno without them.”
The Zapatista companeras’ struggle for inclusion and parity with their male counterparts grates against separatist politics that some militant first-world feminists who journeyed to the jungle espouse. Lesbian couples and collectives seemed a substantial faction in the first-world feminist delegations. Although no Zapatista women has publicly come out, the EZLN has been zealous in its inclusion of lesbians and gays and incorporate their struggles in the rainbow of marginalized constitutuencies with whose cause they align themselves.
Sadly, the Encuentro of the Women of the World with the Zapatista Women did not provoke much formal interchange between the rebel companeras and first-world feminists – who were limited to five-minute presentations on the final day of the event. Nonetheless, a surprise Zapatista womens’ theater piece did imply a critique: in the skit, a planeload of first-world feminists with funny hair (played by the companeras) lands in the jungle to deliver the poor Indian women from oppression.
Among international delegations in attendance were women representatives from agrarian movements as far removed from Chiapas as Brazil and Senegal, organized by Via Campesina, an alliance that represents millions of poor farmers in the third world, and a group of militant women from Venice, Italy who have been battling expansion of a U.S. military base in that historic city. Political prisoners were represented by Trinidad Ramirez, partner of imprisoned Ignacio del Valle (who is serving a 67-year sentence), leader of the farmers of Atenco. A message from “Colonel Aurora” (Gloria Arenas), a jailed leader of the Popular Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI), who now supports the EZLN, was read. Although he reputedly lives only a few villages away, Subcomandante Marcos (or his penis) did not put in an appearance at the women’s gathering.
Ladling out chicken soup at her makeshift food stand, Dona Laura told La Jornada chronicler Hermann Bellinghausen that once the womens Encuentro had concluded, everything would return to normal – “only normal would be different now.”
Although the Encounter amply demonstrated the increasing empowerment of the Zapatista companeras, how much of what was said actually rubbed off on those who came from the outside is open to question. “I didn’t really get a lot of it,” confided one young non-Spanish-speaking activist on her way home to northern California to report back on the women’s gathering to her Zapatista solidarity group.
Be that as it may, the EZLN is going to need all the women – and men – it can muster in the months to come. 2008 looms as a difficult year for the rebels with the mal gobierno threatening to distribute lands the Zapatistas recovered in 1994 to rival Indian farmer organizations and paramilitary activity on the uptick.
As has always been the case since this unique rebellion germinated, the Zapatistas turn the corner into another year in struggle.
OPINION Oct. 27 marks the first anniversary of the assassination of New York Indymedia photojournalist Brad Will by police in Oaxaca, Mexico, under the thumb of a corrupt and tyrannical governor.
Will was gunned down just outside Oaxaca City while filming a pitched battle between supporters of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and members of the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO). Will, 36 at the time of the killing, was the only American among 26 victims shot by Ruiz’s police and paramilitary operatives during protests in that state in 2006. No one has been held accountable for any of these murders.
A year after Will’s death, those who killed him are walking the streets. No charges have been filed against them, despite graphic evidence of their culpability. Will, true to his profession, never let go of his camera; he inadvertently filmed his murder, and photos of five cops firing their weapons at him appeared in major Mexican newspapers the day after the killing.
Indeed, the Guardian and 25 other member newspapers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies published a startling photograph of his killers on their front pages Aug. 8 along with a 5,000-word investigative report I wrote probing the circumstances of the independent journalist’s death.
Yet although there have been repeated public denunciations of the killing by such international human rights watchdogs as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, neither the Mexican government nor, more pertinently, the US State Department has demanded justice for Will. The case now molders in the cold-case file, and despite street protests on both sides of the border, a barrage of e-mails to both governments demanding a thorough investigation of the murder, and even a visit to Oaxaca by his bereaved family, no authority has been animated to revisit this travesty.
The failure of the US government to demand accountability from Mexican president Felipe Calderón and Governor Ruiz is appalling. During the past year the US embassy in Mexico City under the direction of George W. Bush crony Tony Garza has been conspicuously silent about Will’s killing. In fact, the embassy’s only response to this murder since last Oct. 27 has been to warn American tourists about visiting Oaxaca.
The night Will was killed, Garza used the opportunity to condemn the popular movement in Oaxaca, thereby green-lighting thenMexican president Vicente Fox to send in federal troops to crush the rebellion.
Will was one of 20 journalists working in Mexico to have disappeared or been killed since 2000. According to a count kept by Reporters Without Borders, 81 journalists were killed worldwide in 2006. Murdering the messenger continues to be the modus operandi of repressive governments and their security forces.
Will did not work for the New York Times. He was an independent voice on the front line of social protest in Latin America, and he paid a terrible price for his valiant and necessary reportage. In Mexico and elsewhere, when those who work for social change are so martyred, we do not concede their deaths, because their work is always with us. A year after his as-yet unresolved murder, Will is still present.
"Brad Will, presente!"
John Ross has been the Guardian‘s correspondent in Mexico for the past 22 years.
Oaxaca, Mexico Those of us who report from the front lines of the social-justice movement in Latin America share an understanding that there’s always a bullet out there with our name on it. Brad Will traveled 2,500 miles, from New York to this violence-torn Mexican town, to find his.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was on fire. Death squads, the pistoleros of a despised governor, rolled through the cobblestoned streets of this colonial capital, peppering with automatic weapon fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded, or imprisoned.
Will, a New York Indymedia videojournalist, felt he had to be there. Xenophobia was palpable on the ground when Will touched down. Foreign journalists were attacked as terrorists by the governor’s sycophants in the media: "Si ves un gringo con cámara, matanlo!" the radio chattered if you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!
For much of the afternoon of Oct. 27, Will had been filming armed confrontations on the barricades just outside the city. He was trapped in the middle of a narrow street while gunshots boomed all around him, but he kept filming, looking for the money shot.
And he found it: on his final bits of tape, two clearly identifiable killers are perfectly framed, their guns firing. You hear the fatal shot and experience Brad’s shudder of dismay as the camera finally tumbles from his hands and bounces along the sidewalk.
By all visible evidence, Brad Will filmed his own murder. But this is Mexico, where justice is spelled impunity and Will’s apparent killers continue to ride the streets of Oaxaca, free and, it seems, untouchable.
Curiously, this egregious murder of a US reporter in Mexico has drawn minimal response from US Ambassador Tony Garza, an old crony of President George W. Bush. Why this lack of interest? Can it be that Washington has another agenda that conflicts with justice for Will the impending privatization of Mexican oil?
Will was once a fire-breathing urban legend on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whether perched atop the Fifth Street squat where he had lived for years and waving his long arms like Big Bird as the wrecking ball swung in, or being dragged out of City Hall dressed as a sunflower while trying to rescue the neighborhood’s community gardens, this child of privilege from Chicago’s wealthy North Shore was a legitimate street hero in the years before the World Trade Center towers collapsed and the social-change movement in New York City went into deep freeze.
Will hosted an incendiary weekly show on the New York pirate station Steal This Radio and was an early part of Indymedia, the Web publishing experiment born during the "Battle of Seattle," the World Trade Organization protests that rocked that city in 1999.
With his long hair neatly tied back and parted down the middle, with his granny glasses and fringe beard, and with his fierce commitment to building community, Will seemed to have emerged whole from a more utopian time in America.
He was an independent journalist, one of the growing number of people, such as Josh Wolf in San Francisco, who use the Internet and their video cameras to track and report on social moments and injustice. He wore no credential from any major news organization. But using outlets like Indymedia, he like Wolf, who spent seven months in prison to avoid giving the police a copy of his video outtakes represented part of the future of journalism.
Will’s journey to the land where he would die began right after Sept. 11, 2001. Dyan Neary, then a neophyte journalist, met Will in a South Street skyscraper elevator coming down from the WBAI studios from which Amy Goodman broadcast soon after the terrorist attacks.
"We walked down the piles. They were still smoking," Neary remembered in a phone call from Humboldt County. "We were both really scared. We thought this was not going to be resolved soon. Maybe never. So we thought we should go to Latin America, where people were still fighting."
Will and Neary spent most of 2002 and 2003 roaming the bubbling social landscape of Latin America. In Fortaleza, Brazil, they confronted the director of the Inter-American Development Bank during riotous street protests. They journeyed to Bolivia too and interviewed Evo Morales, not yet the president. They traveled in the Chapare rainforest province with members of the coca growers’ federation. They hung out in Cochabamba with Oscar Olivera, the hero of the battle to keep Bechtel Corp. from taking over that city’s water system. Everywhere they went, they sought out pirate radio projects and offered their support.
In February 2005, Will was in Brazil, in the thick of social upheaval, filming the resistance of 12,000 squatters at a camp near the city of Goiânia in Pernambuco state, when the military police swept in, killing two and jailing hundreds. On his videos, you can hear the shots zinging all around him as he captured the carnage. Will was savagely beaten and held by the police. Only his US passport saved him.
Undaunted by his close call, Will picked up his camera and soldiered back through Peru and Bolivia, and when the money ran out, he flew back to New York to figure out how to raise enough for the next trip south. He was hooked. In early 2006, drawn like a moth to flame, he was back, tracking Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign through the Mayan villages on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
In the spring of 2006, Will was back in New York as he tracked the Other Campaign and the incipient rebellion in Oaxaca on the Internet from his room in Williamsburg. (The rent gougers had forced him out of the Lower East Side.) He was poised to jump south again, friends say, but was worried that he would just be one more white guy getting in the way.
In the end, the lure of the action in Oaxaca pulled him in. He bought a 30-day ticket, caught the airport shuttle from Brooklyn to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and flew south Sept. 29. His return was set for Oct. 28. He never made that flight.
THE COMMUNE OF OAXACA
A mountainous southern Mexican state traversed by seven serious sierras, Oaxaca is at the top of most of the nation’s poverty indicators infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment, and illiteracy. Human rights violations are rife. It’s also Mexico’s most indigenous state, with 17 distinct Indian cultures, each with a rich tradition of resistance to the dominant white and mestizo overclass. Oaxaca vibrates with class and race tensions that cyclically erupt into uprising and repression.
The Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI, ruled Mexico from 1928 to 2000, the longest-running political dynasty in the world. The corrupt organization was dethroned by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its picaresque presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, former president of Coca Cola México.
But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While voters were throwing off the PRI yoke all over the rest of the country, in Oaxaca one PRI governor had followed another for 75 years. The latest, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a protégé of party strongman and future presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, won a fraud-marred election over a right-left coalition in 2004.
In the first 16 months of his regime, Ruiz proved spectacularly unresponsive to the demands of the popular movements for social justice. When, on May 15, 2006, National Teachers Day, a maverick, militant local of the National Education Workers Union known as Section 22 presented its contract demands, Ruiz turned a deaf ear. Then, on May 22, tens of thousands of teachers took the plaza and 52 surrounding blocks and set up a ragtag tent city. Each morning the maestros would march out of their camp and block highways and government buildings, which were soon smeared with anti-Ruiz slogans.
Ruiz retaliated before dawn June 14, sending 1,000 heavily armed police officers into the plaza to evict the teachers. Low-flying helicopters sprayed pepper gas on the throng below. Ruiz’s police took up positions in the colonial hotels that surround the plaza and tossed down concussion grenades from the balconies. Radio Plantón, the maestros’ pirate radio station, was demolished and the tent city set afire. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.
Four hours later a spontaneous outburst by Oaxaca’s very active community, combined with the force of the striking teachers and armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, overran the plaza and sent Ruiz’s cops packing. No uniformed officers would be seen on the streets of Oaxaca for many months. And on June 16, two days after the monumental battle, 200,000 Oaxacans marched through the city to repudiate the governor’s "hard hand." The megamarch was said to extend 10 kilometers.
John Gibler, who closely covered the Oaxaca uprising as a human-rights fellow for Global Exchange, wrote that the surge of the rebels June 14 soon transformed itself into a popular assembly. The Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly, or APPO, was formally constituted June 21. The APPO had no leaders but many spokespeople, and all decisions had to be made in assemblies.
A CITY PARALYZED
For the next weeks, the actions of the APPO and Section 22 paralyzed Oaxaca but the rest of Mexico took little notice. Instead, the nation was hypnotized by the fraud-marred July 2 presidential election in which a right-wing PAN-ista, Felipe Calderón, had been awarded a narrow victory over leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of a coalition headed by the Party of the Democratic Revolution. López Obrador was quick to cry fraud, pulling millions into the streets in the most massive political demonstrations in Mexican history. Oaxaca still seemed like small potatoes.
But Oaxaca is an international tourist destination, and the APPO and Section 22 protests had closed down the tourist infrastructure, blocking the airport and forcing five-star hotels to shutter their doors. On July 17, Ruiz was forced to announce the cancellation of the Guelaguetza, an indigenous dance festival that has become Oaxaca’s premiere tourist attraction, after roaming bands of rebels destroyed the scenery and blockaded access to the city.
Ruiz began to fight back. By the first weeks of August, the governor launched what came to be known as the Caravan of Death a train of 30 or 40 private and government vehicles rolling nightly, firing on the protesters. Ruiz’s gunmen were drawn from the ranks of the city police and the state ministerial police.
To keep the Caravan of Death from moving freely through Oaxaca, the APPO and the union threw up barricades; 1,000 were built in the working-class colonies throughout the city and its suburbs. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, and burned-out cars and buses to create the barricades, which soon took on a life of their own; murals were painted using the ashes of the bonfires that burned all night on the barriers. Indeed, the barricades gave the Oaxaca struggle the romantic aura of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and attracted droves of dreadlocked anarchists to the city.
An uneasy lull in the action gripped Oaxaca on Oct. 1, when Will arrived at the bus terminal, then found himself a cheap room for the night. The break wouldn’t last long.
ON THE BARRICADES
Like most non-Mexicans who style themselves as independent reporters, Will had no Mexican media credential and therefore was in the country illegally, working on a tourist visa and susceptible to deportation. To have some credential other than his Indymedia press card to hang around his neck, he got himself accredited with Section 22 and wore the rebel ID assiduously.
On Oct. 14, APPO militant Alejandro García Hernández was cut down at a barricade near Símbolos Patrios, a downtown plaza. Will joined an angry procession to the Red Cross hospital where the dead man had been taken.
In the last dispatch he filed from Oaxaca, on Oct. 16, Will caught this very Mexican whiff of death: "Now [García Hernández lies] waiting for November when he can sit with his loved ones on the day of the dead and share food and drink and a song … one more death one more martyr in a dirty war one more time to cry and hurt one more time to know power and its ugly head one more bullet cracks the night."
The dynamic in Oaxaca had gotten "sketchy," Will wrote to Neary. Section 22 leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco had cut a deal with the outgoing Fox government and forced a back-to-work vote Oct. 21 that narrowly carried amid charges of sellout and payoffs. If the teachers went back to work, the APPO would be alone on the barricades and even more vulnerable to Ruiz’s gunmen. But backing down was not in the assembly’s dictionary, and the APPO voted to ratchet up the lucha (struggle) and make Oaxaca really ungovernable.
Mobile brigades were formed young toughs armed with lead pipes and nail-studded boards who hijacked buses still running in the city, forced the passengers off, and rode around looking for action. Later the buses would be set afire. Charred hulks blossomed on the streets of the old colonial city. The barricades were reinforced to shut down the capital beginning Oct. 27.
The escalation proved to be a terrible miscalculation. In Mexico City the postelectoral turmoil had finally subsided, and PAN was ready to deal with the PRI; bailing out the governor of Oaxaca was the PRI’s price of admission.
It wasn’t a good time for inexperienced foreigners. Ruiz’s people were checking the guest lists at the hostels for "inconvenient" internationals. Immigration authorities threatened extranjeros with deportation if they joined the protests. The local US consul, Mark Leyes, warned Americans that he would not be able to help them if they got caught up in the maelstrom.
Adding to this malevolent ambiance, a new pirate station popped up Oct. 26. Radio Ciudadana (Citizens’ radio) announced it was broadcasting "to bring peace to Oaxaca" and to celebrate the honor of "our macho, very macho governor." The announcers seemed to have Mexico City accents. Wherever they had been sent from, they let loose with a torrent of vitriolic shit stuff like "We have to kill the mugrosos [dirty ones] on the barricades." The extranjeros, the radio said, were stirring up all the trouble: "They pretend to be journalists, but they have come to teach terrorism classes."
More frightening was this admonition: "Si ves un gringo con cámara, matanlo!" "If you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!"
This poison spewed out of local radios all day Oct. 26 and 27, but whether Will heard the warnings and if he did, whether knew what they meant is unclear. He didn’t speak much Spanish.
SHOT IN THE CHEST
On Oct. 27, Will went out to do interviews on the barricade at Santa María Coyotepec, about 20 kilometers from the city. The three barricades at Coyotepec, Cal y Canto, and La Experimental were crucial to closing down Oaxaca the next day. The broad Railroad Avenue where the barricade was stacked was empty. Nothing was moving. Will walked on to the next barricade at La Experimental to check out the action.
Soon after the Indymedia reporter left, all hell broke loose at Cal y Canto. A mob of about 150 Ruiz supporters stormed down Railroad Avenue, led by what witnesses thought was a Chevy Blazer. The vehicle was moving very fast. "We thought it would try and crash through the barricade," Miguel Cruz, an activist and witness, recalled. But the SUV stopped short, and several men jumped out with guns blazing. The APPO people hunkered down behind the makeshift barrier and moved the women and kids who were with them into a nearby house. Then they went on the counterattack with Molotov cocktails, homemade bazookas that fired bottle rockets, and slingshots. Most of the mob had melted away, and with the gunmen retreating, the rebels torched their vehicle.
Will heard about the gunfire and hurried back to Cal y Canto with a handful of other reporters. They arrived a little after 3 p.m.
Will climbed under a parked trailer to film the shooters. He focused on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist (who is not seen on the videotape) came running by, Will indicated the shooter "Camisa blanca." While all this was going on, the camera captured a bicyclist peddling dreamily through the intersection. Soon after, a large dump truck appeared on the scene, and the group on the barricade used it as a mobile shield as they chased the gunmen down the avenue.
Suddenly, the pistoleros veered down a narrow side street, Benito Juárez, and took refuge in a windowless, one-story building on the second block. The only access to the building was through a large metal garage door, and the reporters followed the APPO militants, many of whom were masked, as they tried to force their way in. Will stood to one side of the door for a minute, poised for the money shot. Then the compas tried unsuccessfully to bust down the big door by ramming the dump truck into it.
In the midst of this frenzy, five men in civilian dress two in red shirts (the governor’s color) and the others in white appeared at the head of Benito Juárez, about 30 meters away, and began shooting at the rebels.
Two of the gunmen were later identified by Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a cop and local PRI political fixer, and police commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of those in the white shirts, crouched behind Carmona, was Abel Santiago Zárate, a.k.a. El Chino. Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of municipal president Manuel Martínez Feria of the PRI. The other two would later be fingered as Juan Carlos Soriano, a.k.a. El Chapulín (the grasshopper), and Juan Sumano, both Santa Lucía del Camino police officers. All five are eminently identifiable in the film Will shot just moments before the bullets hit him.
When the shooting erupted, Will took cover on the opposite side of the narrow street from the rest of the media. He was crouched against a lime green wall when the first bullet came. On the video soundtrack, you can hear both the shot and Will’s cries of dismay as it tore through his Indymedia T-shirt and smashed into his heart. A second shot caught him in the right side and destroyed his innards. There was little blood spilled, the first slug having stopped his heart.
In footage that witness Gustavo Vilchis and others filmed, the entrance wound of the first shot looks like a deep bruise. The second shot was not recorded on the soundtrack and may have been fired simultaneously with the first.
Others were shot in the pandemonium. Oswaldo Ramírez, filming for the daily Milenio, was grazed. Lucio David Cruz, described as a bystander, was hit in the neck and died four months later.
As Will slid down the wall into a sitting position, Vilchis and activist Leonardo Ortiz ran to him. Will’s Section 22 credential had flown off, and no one there knew his name. With bullets whizzing by, the compas picked Will up and dragged him out of the line of fire and around the corner to Árboles Street, about 35 paces away. Along the way, his pants fell off.
"Ambulance! We need an ambulance! They’ve shot a journalist!" Vilchis, a tall young man with a face like an Italian comic actor’s, shouted desperately. Gualberto Francisco, another activist, had parked his vochito (Volkswagen Bug) on Árboles and pulled up alongside Will, who was laid out on the pavement in his black bikini underwear.
Ortiz and Vilchis loaded the dying Will into the back seat. They thought he was still breathing, and Vilchis applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "You’re going to make it … you’re all right," they kept telling him. But Will’s eyes had already turned up he was perdido (lost), as they say in Mexico.
The vochito ran out of gas, and while the frantic young men ferrying Will were stuck in the middle of the Cinco Señores crossroad, it began to rain hard. They tried to stop a taxi to take them to the Red Cross, but the driver supported the government and wanted to argue. Finally, they flagged down a pickup truck and laid Will out in the bed. He was dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to the report by the coroner, Dr. Luis Mendoza.
THE OUTRAGE BEGINS
Oct. 27 was the bloodiest day of the Oaxaca uprising. Four people were killed besides Will: Emilio Alonso Fabián, Esteban Ruiz, Esteban López Zurita, and Audacia Olivera Díaz.
Unlike their murders, Will’s death triggered international outrage. Because he was so connected and because much of the episode was recorded on film the shot of the mortally wounded Indymedia reporter lying in the middle of a Oaxaca street went worldwide on the Web in a matter of minutes.
There were instant vigils on both coasts of the United States. On Oct. 30, 11 of Will’s friends were busted trying to lock down at the Mexican consulate off Manhattan’s Park Avenue, where graffiti still read "Avenge Brad!" in December. Anarchists splattered the San Francisco consulate with red paint. Subcomandante Marcos sent his condolences and called for international protests. Goodman did an hour-long memorial.
On March 16, 2007, at its midyear meeting in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, the Inter-American Press Association, an organization devoted to freedom of speech and the press in the Americas, passed a resolution calling for action on the Will case.
"The investigation into the killing has been plagued by irregularities and inconsistencies, and no arrests have been made," the group said in a statement. IAPA called for the federal attorney general to take over the investigation, "in view of the lack of confidence in state authorities and the lack of progress in the case, so that it may apprehend the culprits, who, according to one theory of the investigation, may be indirectly linked to state authorities."
The official reaction to Will’s death was more cautious. "It is unfortunate when peaceful demonstrations get out of hand and result in violence," a US spokesperson told the media, seeming to blame the APPO for Will’s killing. After once again warning Americans that they traveled to Oaxaca "at their own risk," Ambassador Garza commented on the "senseless death of Brad Will" and how it "underscores the need for a return to the rule of law and order."
"For months," he said, "violence and disorder in Oaxaca have worsened. Teachers, students, and other groups have been involved in increasingly violent demonstrations."
Garza’s statement sent Fox the signal he had been waiting for. Now that a gringo had been killed, it was time to act. The next morning, Oct. 28, 4,500 officers from the Federal Preventative Police, an elite force drawn from the military, were sent into Oaxaca not to return the state to a place where human rights, dignity, and a free media are respected but to break the back of the people’s rebellion and keep Ruiz in power.
On Oct. 29 the troops pushed their way into the plaza despite massive but passive resistance by activists, tore down the barricades, and drove the commune of Oaxaca back into the shadows.
In Mexico the dead are buried quickly. After the obligatory autopsy, Brad’s body was crated up for shipment to his parents, who now live south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the family had him cremated.
Killing a gringo reporter in plain view of the cameras (one of which was his own) requires a little sham accountability. On Oct. 29 the state prosecutor, Lizbeth Caña Cadeza, announced that arrest warrants were being sworn out for Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello, two of the five cops caught on film gunning Will down, and they were subsequently taken into custody.
The scam lost currency two weeks later when, on Nov. 15, Caña Cadeza dropped a bombshell at an evening news conference: the cops hadn’t killed Will, she said; he was shot by the rebels.
Will’s death, she insisted, had been "a deceitful confabulation to internationalize the conflict" and was, in fact, "the product of a concerted premeditated action." The mortal shot had been fired from less than two and a half meters away, Caña Cadeza said although there is nothing in the coroner’s report to indicate this. The real killers, she said, were "the same group [Will] was accompanying."
In the state prosecutor’s scenario, the order of the shots was reversed: first Will had been shot in the side on the street, then rematado (finished off) with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital in Francisco’s vochito.
The prosecutor’s plot was immediately challenged by the APPO. "The killers are those who are shown in the film," Florentino López, the assembly’s main spokesperson, asserted at a meeting that night.
And in fact our detailed investigation shows that there is very little evidence to support Caña Cadeza’s theory. Photos from the scene, some published in the Mexican media, show Will’s body with a bloody hole in his chest on the street near where he fell indicating that his fatal heart wound occurred well before he was dragged into the car where he was supposedly shot.
There’s another problem with the prosecutor’s suggestion: nobody on the scene saw any APPO members, or anyone except the authorities, carrying guns. This reporter has talked to numerous eyewitnesses, and all told the same tale: the rebels at the barricade that day had no firearms with which they could have shot Will.
Miguel Cruz, who spent much of Oct. 27 with Will, first at the Council of Indigenous People of Oaxaca, of which he is a member, and then on the barricade at Cal y Canto and on Juárez Street, is a soft-spoken young Zapotec Indian, but he pounded vehemently on the kitchen table when he addressed Caña Cadeza’s allegations.
"The compañeros had no guns. What gun is she talking about? They had slingshots and Molotovs but no guns. The PRI-istas and the cops had their .38s, and they were shooting at us," he said. "We were trying to save Brad Will’s life, not to kill him."
And if Caña Cadeza had any proof of her allegations, she likely would have filed charges. But none of the protesters or Will’s companions has been formally charged with the killing. Prosecutors have never publicly presented the alleged murder weapon.
But by the time Caña Cadeza told her story, of course, the only way to determine for sure the order of the bullets and the distance from which they had been fired would have been to exhume Will’s body. And there was no body; he had been cremated the week before.
On Nov. 28, Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were released from custody by Judge Victoriano Barroso because of "insufficient evidence," with the stipulation that they could not be rearrested without the presentation of new evidence.
Caña Cadeza, who is now running as a PRI candidate for the state legislature, collaborated closely on the case with Oaxaca secretary of citizen protection Lino Celaya. Both reported to Ruiz’s secretary of government, Heliodoro Díaz, who in turn reported directly to the governor. There seems little doubt that the prosecutor’s accusations of murder against Will’s comrades and the determination of innocence for the apparent killers came straight from the top.
ON THE EVIDENCE TRAIL
Dr. Mendoza was occupied when I stopped by the Oaxaca city morgue to ask for a copy of the autopsy report on which the state has based its allegations.
"Will died eight months ago," Mendoza complained testily. "Do you know how many others have died since? How many autopsies I’ve performed?" He gestured to a morgue room where cadavers were piled up.
The coroner was scrunched over his desk, filling out the paperwork for one of the dead. He didn’t have any time to look for the autopsy report. I was not the first reporter to ask him about the document. "What paper are you from anyway?" he asked suspiciously, and when I showed him my media card, he told me that it didn’t sound like a real newspaper to him. "I know what I’m doing. I worked as a coroner in your country," he snapped defensively and waved me out of the office.
But Mendoza might not be quite as cocksure as he sounded. A senior agent for the US government in Oaxaca, who asked not to be named in this article, told me later that Mendoza confided to him that he was no ballistics expert, nor could he determine from how far away the bullets were fired.
I walked into the police commissary under the first-floor stairs of the Santa Lucía del Camino Municipal Palace. The small room was crowded with cops and cigarette smoke. Three of the officers were in full battle gear, and the rest were plainclothes. I had been warned not to ask for Carmona, the most prominent red shirt on Will’s film. Carmona is described as a prepotente i.e., a thug with an attitude who is always packing.
Instead, I asked the desk clerk if I could get a few minutes with Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello. For all I knew, the two were sitting in the room behind me. The desk clerk studied my card. "Qué lástima!" he exclaimed what a shame. Santiago Zárate had just left and wouldn’t be back until after six. Aguilar Coello was off that day. When I called back after six, Santiago Zárate was still not available. Nor were he and Aguilar Coello ever available the dozen or so times I called back.
This sort of stonewalling is not terribly unusual for Mexico, where killer cops often sell their services to local caciques (political bosses) and go back to work as if nothing had happened. Those who direct this sort of mayhem from their desks in the statehouses and municipal palaces the "intellectual assassins," as they are called are never held accountable for their crimes.
A VISIT FROM HOME
In March, Brad’s parents, Kathy and Howard Will, and his older brother and sister paid a sad, inconclusive visit to Oaxaca. They had hired Miguel Ángel de los Santos Cruz, a crackerjack human rights lawyer who has often defended Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Gibler, the Global Exchange human-rights fellow, was the translator.
The Wills, upper-middle-class Americans, had little experience with the kind of evil that lurks inside the Mexican justice system; the trip was a traumatic, eye-opening experience.
The federal Attorney General’s Office had taken over the case from the state in December, but rather than investigating police complicity and culpability, it was pursuing Caña Cadeza’s dubious allegation blaming Will’s companions for his killing.
Gustavo Vilchis, Gualberto Francisco, Leonardo Ortiz, and Miguel Cruz were summoned to give testimony, with the Wills in attendance. Testifying was a risky venture, as the witnesses could have been charged with the murder at any moment, but out of respect for the family, the compas agreed to tell their story to the federal investigators. During the hearing they were repeatedly questioned about and asked to identify not the cops who appear on Will’s film but their own compañeros, some masked, who appeared on tape shot by Televisa, the Mexican TV giant. They refused.
When Los Santos accompanied the Wills to a meeting with Caña Cadeza, she touted her investigation and promised them a copy of its results. But she refused to allow the family to view Will’s Indymedia T-shirt and the two bullets taken from his body. They were, she explained, under the control of Barroso the judge who had cut loose the cops.
THE POLITICS OF OIL
There are larger geopolitics at work here.
The US Department of State has a certain conflict of interest in trying to push first-year Mexican president Calderón to collar Will’s killers. The crackdown in Oaxaca was all about a political deal between Calderón’s PAN and Ruiz’s PRI: if PAN saved the governor’s ass, the PRI would support the president’s legislative package.
Indeed, the PRI’s 100 votes in the lower house of the Mexican Congress guarantee Calderón the two-thirds majority he needs to alter the constitution and effect the change that’s at the top of his legislative agenda opening up Petróleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation and a symbol of Mexico’s national revolution, to private investment, a gambit that requires a constitutional amendment.
Since then-president Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated Mexico’s petroleum industry from Anglo and American owners and nationalized it in 1938, the United States has been trying to take it back. "Transnational pressure to reprivatize PEMEX has been brutal," observed John Saxe Fernandez, a professor of strategic resource studies at Mexico’s autonomous university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
During the run-up to the hotly contested 2006 presidential elections, candidates Calderón and López Obrador debated the privatization of Mexico’s national oil corporation before the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City; former US ambassador Jeffrey Davidow moderated the debate. When the leftist López Obrador insisted that he would never privatize what belonged to all Mexicans, the business leaders stared in stony silence. The conservative Calderón’s pledge to open PEMEX to private investment drew wild applause. Calderón was, of course, Washington’s horse in the fraud-marred election.
In order to accommodate Washington, Calderón needs a two-thirds majority in the congress and the PRI’s votes in the lower house are crucial to guaranteeing passage of a constitutional amendment. "Without the PRI’s votes, PEMEX will not be privatized. That is why Calderón has granted Ruiz impunity," Saxe Fernandez concluded.
Washington is eager to see PEMEX privatized, which would create an opportunity for Exxon Mobil Corp. and Halliburton (now PEMEX’s largest subcontractor) to walk off with a big chunk of the world’s eighth-largest oil company. Pushing Calderón too hard to do justice for Will could disaffect the PRI and put a kibosh on the deal.
It is not easy to imagine Brad Will as a pawn in anyone’s power game, but as the months tick by and his killing and killers sink into the morass of memory, that is exactly what he is becoming. 2
John Ross is the Guardian‘s Mexico City correspondent. This story was comissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and is running in about 20 alternative papers this week.
By John Ross
OAXACA, OAXACA (May 27th) — On the first anniversary of the beginning of last summer’s feverish uprising here, the city’s jewel-box plaza which had been occupied for seven months by striking teachers and their allies in the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly (APPO) from May until October when federal police forced them into retreat, shimmered in the intense spring sunbeams. The only massive police presence on view was the city police department’s orchestra tootling strident martial airs to a shirt-sleeved crowd of gaffers. Here and there, handfuls of burley state cops, sweltering in bulletproof vests and helmets in hand, huddled in the shade quaffing aguas frescas (fruit water) and flirting with the senoritas.
Evidence of last summer’s occupation has been obliterated. Surrounding government buildings have been scrubbed clean of revolutionary slogans and no marches were scheduled to commemorate last May 22nd when the teachers first established their camp in the plaza. Indeed, militant members of Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) were not encamped in the stately old square for the first time since the section’s founding 27 years ago. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), the object of their fury, was still the despotic governor of Oaxaca.
Despite the relaxation of U.S. State Department travel advisories and the apparent calm, few tourists were strolling the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca’s historic center and the cavernous colonial hotels around the plaza were virtually deserted.
The 2006 uprising has put a serious kibosh on the international tourist trade, the backbone of the local economy. If the experience of San Cristobal de las Casas after the 1994 Zapatista uprising is any lesson, the tourist moguls will take years to recoup.
“Apparent calm” is a euphemism oft utilized to describe the uneasy lulls that mark social upheaval in Mexico. True to the nation’s volcanic political metabolism with its fiery spurts of molten fightback and sullen, brooding silences, the Oaxaca struggle seems to have entered into a period of internal contemplation.
Government repression, which featured death squad killings and the jailing of hundreds of activists, slammed the lid down on the social stew but did not extinguish it. Discontent continues to brew and fester, the bad gas building down below. The structures of the Popular Assembly and the teachers union, which served to catalyze this discontent throughout 2006, remain intact.
To be sure, the social movements that lit up red bulbs as far away as Washington last year are not enjoying their best moments. Section 22, which itself is a loose amalgam of left factions, is wracked with division and dissonance, and its titular leader, Enrique Rueda Pacheco, is held in profound contempt for having forced the strikers back into the classroom last October and abandoning the APPO to savage government repression.
Moreover, in response to the 70,000-strong Section 22’s rebellion against the leadership of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE), union czarina Elba Esther Gordillo, a close confidante of President Felipe Calderon, chartered a new Oaxaca local, Section 59, to diminish the control that the militants exert over the state’s classrooms.
The division has put a dent in the teachers’ usual aggressive stance and instead of walking out this past May 15th, National Teachers Day, when new contracts are negotiated, Section 22 tentatively accepted a 4.8 percent base wage increase (above the 3.7 percent Calderon had conceded to other sectors) and 122 million bonus pesos to “re-zone” Oaxaca for cost of living increases in this tourism-driven state.
Although the “maestros” did participate in a two-day boycott of classes in May to protest the Calderon government’s privatization of government workers pension funds, whether the teachers will take part in an indefinite national walk-out June 1st that has been called by dissident education workers organized in the Coordinating Body of Education Workers or CNTE, remains unresolved at press time.
Nonetheless, the teachers’ disaffection with Ulises remains strong and Section 22 spokesperson Zenen Reyes last week (May 23rd) called upon the teachers and the APPO to push for cancellation of the Guelaguetza, an “indigenous” dance festival in July that has become Oaxaca’s premier tourist attraction. Last year, the strikers and the APPO destroyed scenery and denied access to the spectacle, forcing URO to suspend the gala event. In its place, activists reclaimed this millennial tradition of Indian cultural interchange by staging a “popular” Guelaguetza in the part of the city they were occupying, and plans are afoot to repeat that celebration this year.
The Oaxaca Popular Peoples Assembly, which came together after the governor sent a thousand police to drive the maestros out of the plaza last June 14th and which at one time included representatives of the state’s 17 distinct Indian peoples and many of the 400 majority indigenous municipalities plus hundreds of grassroots organizations, is equally fractured. Having borne the brunt of the repression – 26 killed, 30 disappeared, hundreds imprisoned – the Popular Assembly has been reduced to a defensive posture when only months ago it was an aggressive lightning rod for social discontent.
Even more debilitating than the government crackdown has been the prospect of upcoming local elections August 7th to choose 42 members of the Oaxaca legislature and October 5th balloting for 157 non-Indian municipal presidents (majority indigenous municipalities elect their presidents via traditional assemblies.) While the APPO considers that its goals transcend the electoral process and rejects alliance with the political parties, some Popular Assembly leaders engage in a quirky dance with the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which last July almost catapulted Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) into the presidency.
Prominent APPO mouthpiece Flavio Sosa, jailed by Calderon as his first political prisoner, is a former Oaxaca party leader and the PRD has mobilized to achieve his release.
Perhaps the cruelest blow the APPO and the striking teachers struck against Ulises came during July 2nd 2006 presidential elections. Although URO had promised the long-ruling (77 years – at least in Oaxaca) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) a million votes for his political godfather Roberto Madrazo, the popular movement inflicted the voto del castigo (punishment vote) against the PRI, handing the state to AMLO’s presidential bid in addition to electing both PRD senators and nine out of 11 federal representatives to the new congress for the first time ever.
The left party seemed positioned to bump Ruiz again in 2007 by taking the state legislature and neutralizing the tyrannical governor’s clout. But instead of rewarding the APPO and Section 22 for having dumped the PRI in 2006, the party has responded by excluding activists from its candidate lists.
“If, at one time, there was hope that elections could provide a solution to the conflict, exclusion of the APPO has canceled them,” writes Luis Hernandez Navarro who follows Oaxaca closely for the national daily La Jornada.
One Oaxaca-based PRD insider who preferred not to be named confides that APPO activists were vetoed by the left party’s national leadership least front-page photos of the candidates hurling rocks during last summer’s altercations lend credence to the perpetual allegations of the PRI and Calderon’s right-wing PAN that the PRD is “the part of violence.” Most local candidacies were distributed in accordance with the laws of PRD nepotism and amongst the party’s myriad “tribes.”
The exclusion of the APPO activists so infuriated 50 members of grassroots organizations led by Zapotec Indian spokesperson Aldo Gonzalez that they stormed the PRD’s Oaxaca city headquarters May 18th, leaving its façade a swirl of spray-painted anguish. The failure to select candidates from the popular movement, Gonzalez and others charge, throws the elections to URO, suggesting that the PRD has cut a deal with the APPO’s arch enemy.
Given the hostilities the upcoming elections have sparked so far, the August and October balloting could well signal another “voto del castigo” – this time against the PRD.
The election season was in full swing by mid-Spring in Oaxaca. PRD leader Felix Cruz, who had just coordinated Lopez Obrador’s third tour of the Mixteca mountains (AMLO was conspicuously absent during last summer’s struggle), was gunned down in Ejutla de Crespo on May 21st. Juan Antonio Robles, a direction of the Unified Triqui Liberation Movement (MULT), a participating organization in the APPO, met a similar fate the next day. That same week, a car carrying a local candidate for Elba Esther Gordillo’s New Alliance Party was riddled with gunfire along the coast. Drug gang killings have also jacked up the homicide rate in the state – under Ulises’ governance, drugs and drug gangs have flourished.
Meanwhile, in classic “cacique” (political boss) style, the PRI governor is out and about dishing up the pork to buy votes, passing out cardboard roofing and kilos of beans, building roads to nowhere and bridges where there are no rivers to cross, to pump up his electoral clientele. Gifting opposition leaders with pick-up trucks to enlist their allegiances is a favorite URO gambit, notes Navarro Hernandez.
Despite the ambitions of some of its members, the APPO is not enthusiastic about participating in the electoral process. At a statewide congress in February, APPO members were allowed to run for public office as individuals and only if they resign from any organizational function.
Miguel Cruz, an APPO activist and member of the directive of the CIPO-RFM or Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca – Ricardo Flores Magon (Flores Magon was a Oaxaca-born anarchist leader during the Mexican revolution) is not a partisan of the electoral process. Seated in the CIPO’s open-air kitchen out in Santa Lucia del Camino, a rural suburb of Oaxaca city where police gunned down U.S. journalist Brad Will last October, Miguel explains his disdain for how the elections have split the APPO “when they were supposed to bring us together.
“Everyone is working on their own agendas now and the so-called leaders are all looking for a ‘hueso” (literally ‘bone’ – political appointment.) This is a crying shame. The APPO is a mass movement, not a political party. Our consciences are not for sale.”
June 14th, the day last year Ulises sent a thousand heavily armed police to unsuccessfully take the plaza back from the striking teachers, is a crucial date. The APPO and Section 22 are planning one of their famous mega-marches which last summer sometimes turned out hundreds of thousands of citizens. Will June 14th signal a resurgence of massive resistance and if it does, will the popular leadership be able to restrain hotter heads and government provocateurs that last November gave the federal police the pretext to beat and round up hundreds? Miguel Cruz is hopeful the APPO will persevere. “Whatever the ‘leaders’ do and say, the APPO lives down at the bases.”
Up the steep, windy hill in San Pablo Etla, where the cognoscenti live above the hurly-burly on the streets of Oaxaca, political guru Gustavo Esteva views the popular struggle down below geologically. “The popular movement in Oaxaca is like an active volcano” he writes in La Jornada, “last year when it erupted, the movement left its mark in the form of molten lava trails. Now the lava has cooled and formed a cap of porous rock that marks the point through which the internal pressure will find its way to break through to the surface again.”
John Ross is in Mexico City hot on the trail of Brad Will’s killers and re-immersing himself in the real world. Write him at email@example.com if you have further information.
MEXICO CITY (May 15th) – Mexico’s arid north – 54% of the nation’s land surface – is drying out and blowing away in the wind at an alarming rate as desertification transforms this always-hardscrabble terrain into an American Sahara.
According to the National Commission on Arid and Semi-arid Lands, semi-arid land is being converted to arid wasteland at the rate of 2% a year. Fragile aquifers are sucked dry and erosion turn once-tillable land into sand dunes. Subsistence farmers abandon their plots and jump into the migration stream. Even the native peoples who have lived on this difficult land for millenniums are deserting the desert.
NASA satellite overflights of the northern states of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Durango, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and the Baja California peninsula now show spreading swatches of bone-white, waterless desert, inhospitable bad lands that can no longer support human communities.
But the North is not the only region of Mexico that is drying up. National Water Commission (CONAGUA) studies indicate that 38 Mexican cities, including the luxury resorts of Acapulco and Cancun, are running out of water and could be dry in a decade. Carlos Gay, director of the National Autonomous University Climate Study Center, anticipates a 20% decrease in rainfall by 2080 in Mexico’s two wettest states, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, on the southern border.
At the other end of the nation in the desiccated north, it hardly ever rains anymore. The Laguna region, 10 municipalities in Coahuila state and five in Durango, receives the least rainfall in the Mexico – 244 millimeters annually – and has the highest rate of evaporation. Rescued from the desert by the collectivization of the land and construction of vast hydraulic projects under depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas, the Laguna was once Mexico’ leading cotton growing region. Now, devastated by dried-up wells and soils that have been contaminated by agri-chemicals, the desert is reclaiming La Laguna.
One key reason for this tragic desertification: the re-privatization of land and water resources and their over-exploitation by Mexican and transnational Agribusiness. Perhaps the most notorious offender is the dairy giant Lala – owner Eduardo Tricio Haro’s herds of 200,000 cows exhaust the carrying capacity of this fragile land. Industry insiders calculate that it takes a thousand liters of water to concoct one liter of milk. Lala – which sells more than half its production to Liconsa, the national milk distribution agency – is the source of one out of every two glasses of milk gulped down in this thirsty nation.
For the past six years, as director of CONAGUA, Clemente Jaime Jarquez, an old crony of ex-president Vicente Fox since their days at Coca Cola (Fox was the director of Mexican operations) presided over the systematic draining of the Laguna’s aquifers to benefit Tricio Haro and Lala. Now the National Water Commission is turning its attention to the neighboring Cuatrocienegas international biosphere where Lala has been granted permits to drill 250 wells – 80 of which are already in operation. Clemente Jaime Jarquez was, of course, the former CEO of the Lala Corporation.
Cuatrocienegas water is precious. The biosphere was once under the sea and its secrets date back to the Jurassic age. Indeed, microorganisms native to the region’s land and water are so unique that the biosphere has been dubbed Mexico’s Galapagos by scientists. Last July, UNAM biologist Valeria Sauza discovered that since the water agency authorized the drilling of Lala’s wells, 70% of the aquifers in some valleys have vanished and the geology of the region, which for 35,000 years remained unaltered, is turning into desert.
Lala is certainly not the only corporate entity that is draining Mexico dry. In Sonora, a border state whose badlands blend into the brutal Arizona desert, Governor Eduardo Bours, Mexico’s chicken king, has permits that allow his Bachocho corporation (the major supplier for Pepsico’s KFC) to exploit 600 million liters annually in a largely waterless state. Fox’s old stomping ground, the Coca Cola Corporation of Atlanta Georgia, sucks up ground water that could otherwise provide two liters a day for 14.5 million Mexicans, to formulate its noxious brew. In San Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas, “La Coca” sucks up five liters every second from the Huitepec aquifer where the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has installed an encampment to protest the selling off of precious water.
Big timber has so denuded northern Zacatecas with clear-cuts that the region is losing 150,000 hectares to encroaching desertification every year and another 300,000 hectares are so critically eroded that springtime “tolaveras” or whirlwinds fill the air with choking red-brown dirt. University of Zacatecas agronomists calculate that 20 tons of earth is being moved every spring and dunes now rise where once farmers eked out a living growing corn and beans.
The poor of the region have paid the price for clear-cuts and the corporate evisceration of aquifers. Marginalized desert communities wage wars over what little liquid is left in the ground – 59 out of Mexico’s poorest municipalities are located in desert zones. Emaciated kids are strung along the federal highway outside Matahualpa San Luis Potosi selling desert iguanas and begging coins from passing motorists. Farmers abandon their dying fields and flee into the cities and across the northern border, leaving behind abandoned ghost towns.
Even the first peoples to inhabit these inhospitable lands – 15 desert Indian cultures – are having a harder time surviving in an environment that is seriously out of balance. Chakoko Aniko, a 76 year-old Kikapoo Indian shaman from El Nascimiento Coahuila, rues the disappearance of his peoples’ sacred deer without which Kikapoo culture cannot continue. “When the deer dies, the Kikapoos will die too” he laments to La Jornada reporter Laura Poy.
As their habitat dries out and sacred species disappear – cactus rustling puts a big hurt on native cultures – the young men and women abandon the old ways and native speakers among the Indians of Mexico’s northern desert now number in the dozens.
Mexico’s North is just one corner of the global desert. At least 41% of the planet’s surface is now in danger of going dry – 20% is already desert – directly impacting 250,000.000 people and threatening 1.5 billion more, according to numbers presented by Doctor Zafar Abdeel at the 2005 United Nations conference on the degradation of arid lands. Some 60 million sub-Saharans will be forced off ancestral lands in the next 20 years and migrate in search of work and water as the desert takes over. Wherever they go, the desert will not be far behind.
“We have lived on these lands since history began” the Kikapoo shaman Chakoko Anika recalls plaintively, “where else can we go?”
John Ross is back in Mexico after months on the road in America del Norte. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information on his comings and goings.
Macuspana, Tabasco, Mexico — The billboard posted along the scrubby highway running east in the sultry southern state of Tabasco displays lush jungle, a sun-dappled iguana, and a flock of dazzling macaws. “We’re working for a better environment” the giant road sign radiates.
The leafy graphic contrasts starkly with the blighted scenery of this tropical state, where rivers have been contaminated, the fish envenomed, and the corn fields blasted by acid rain that drips from the polluted sky thanks to the efforts of Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the national oil monopoly and its multiple transnational subcontractors. It is a testament to the fact that Tabasco holds Mexico’s largest land-based petroleum deposits.
But the billboard here in Macuspana — the swampy, oil-rich region settled by the Chontal tribe — was not posted by the Environmental Secretariat to inspire conservationism or even by PEMEX to burnish its tarnished image. No, this pristine scene is signed off by a familiar name for the United States: Halliburton de Mexico. The Houston-based petroleum industry titan’s south-of-the-border subsidiary is PEMEX’s largest subcontractor. Vice President Dick Cheney’s old megacorporation and the largest oil service provider on the planet has been doing business in Mexico for many years.
The privatization of PEMEX, nationalized in 1938 after depression-era president Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated Caribbean coast oil enclaves from Anglo American owners, was right at the heart of Mexico’s still-questioned July 2 presidential election. Right-winger Felipe Calderón, a former energy secretary, is committed to selling off Mexico’s diminishing oil reserves — or at least entering into joint agreements that would guarantee private corporations a substantial quotient of them (the reserves have only 10 more good years, according to the worst-case scenario).
On the other side of the presidential ledger, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a native of Macuspana who many Mexicans believe actually won the presidency, advocates maintaining the state’s control over PEMEX, an entity that pays for more than 40 percent of the Mexican government’s annual budget, on the grounds that the oil wealth of the nation belongs to the Mexican people and no one else.
Knowing full well which side their bread was buttered on, transnationals like Halliburton rushed to support Calderón — as did Cheney, the corporation’s former CEO (1995–2000), and his running mate, George W. Bush. Both Cheney and Bush have long-standing ties to the Mexican oil industry. Bush’s daddy ran Zapata Offshore, a PEMEX subcontractor, back in the 1960s. His partner Jorge Diaz Serrano, a former PEMEX director, served prison time for an oil tanker kickback scheme. Cheney’s Halliburton somehow finagled its way into lucrative service contracts for the newly opened offshore Cantarell field (said to contain upward of 12 billion barrels) back in the 1990s.
How Halliburton got in on the ground floor smells fishy to National Autonomous University professor John Saxe-Fernandez, who tracks strategic resources. The Cantarell contracts were assigned while Cheney was running the show in Houston. At the same time, the Texas conglomerate was busy across the Atlantic allegedly bribing Nigerian oil officials, according to press reports and a French magistrate.
The truth is the debate about privatizing PEMEX is no longer much of a debate. PEMEX has long since subcontracted virtually its entire exploration and perforation divisions to transnationals such as Halliburton, Fluor-Daniels, and the San Francisco–based Bechtel, leaving PEMEX a virtual shell.
Cheney’s old outfit has grabbed the lion’s share of this billion-dollar prize. Between 2000 and 2005, Halliburton picked up 159 contracts with PEMEX’s Perforation and Exploration division for a total of $2.5 billion, about a quarter of PEMEX’s annual operating budget, according to Saxe-Fernandez. The contracts cover everything from drilling slant and vertical wells to maintaining offshore platforms to logging out a jungle for the drilling of 27 turnkey wells in Tabasco and Chiapas.
With 1,250 employees and thousands of contract workers, Halliburton de Mexico has offices in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche (the fast-shrinking Cantarell operation); Reynosa Tamaulipas, where Cheney’s boys are helping to exploit the Burgos natural gas fields; and Poza Rica Veracruz, a region in which Standard Oil’s Harry Doherty and Lord Cowry (Weetman Pierson), owner of what eventually became British Petroleum, once ruled with an iron fist and where Halliburton is now combing through what is left of its old Chicontepec field.
Halliburton also maintains offices in Mexico City and Villahermosa Tabasco, from which it oversees its off- and onshore Caribbean domain. Mexico’s Gulf Coast is not Halliburton’s only Caribbean operation. The KBR (Kellogg Brown Root) division of Cheney’s conglom built 207 cells at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 to house so-called enemy combatants.
Halliburton has had a boot planted in the rebel-ridden state of Chiapas since 1997, three years after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (known in Mexico as the EZLN) rose up and declared war on the Mexican government after the conglom built a natural gas separation plant in the north of that southernmost state. In 2003, Halliburton won a $20 million contract to expand natural gas infrastructure at Reforma — autonomous Zapatista communities lie south and east of the Halliburton installations.
Both PEMEX’s and Cheney’s associates have their eyes on Chiapas — ample reserves lie under the floor of the Lacandon jungle in areas where the Zapatistas have established their caracoles, or public centers, according to studies by National Autonomous University political geographer Andrés Barreda. Indeed, the first battle between the EZLN and the Mexican military took place near a capped well at Nazaret in the canyons that lead down to the jungle floor near where the Zapatista Road to Hope (La Garrucha, the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez) now sits.
According to closely held PEMEX numbers unearthed by Houston oil investigator George Baker, Nazaret was putting out a million cubic feet of natural gas a day when it was capped back in the early 1990s. If Halliburton had been in the picture then, it probably would have picked up the contract, and Dick Cheney, an avid if erratic hunter, would have gotten a chance to exterminate many endangered Lacandon jungle species.
In a religious mood, Cheney once wondered out loud why God did not put the oil under democratic countries, and with that mission in mind, he has set out to democratize foreign oligarchies. His endeavor to bring democracy to Iraq has resulted in more than 50,000 Iraqi dead, civil war, devastation and destruction in every corner of the land, and the systematic sabotage of that nation’s petroleum infrastructure.
Now Cheney and his Halliburton associates say they are democratizing Mexico, having aided and abetted the stealing of the presidential election from López Obrador in favor of Calderón, who would privatize PEMEX. As a member of the Council of Communication, which groups together transnationals doing business in Mexico, Halliburton helped pay for a vicious TV campaign that featured defamatory hit pieces tagging López Obrador a danger to Mexico. Because only political parties can mount such campaigns, Halliburton’s participation was patently illicit, according to Mexico’s highest electoral tribunal.
Planted outside Halliburton de Mexico’s offices in a soaring skyscraper overlooking Paseo de Reforma, where López Obrador’s people would soon be encamped last summer, 80-year-old former oil worker Jacinto Guzman remembered the great strikes (his father was a striker) that had impelled Cárdenas to expropriate the Caribbean complexes where Halliburton now rules — and bemoaned the depredations of Cheney and others of his ilk against what belongs to the Mexican people.
Dressed in a wrinkled suit and hard hat, the old oil worker said he was even more vexed by Halliburton’s participation in the smear campaign to vilify López Obrador.
As he told me, “The gringos think they own our elections too.” SFBG
John Ross is the Guardian’s correspondent in Mexico. His latest book is ZAPATISTAS — Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance 2000–2006.
OPINION The pogrom against independent journalists who refuse to conform to corporate media definitions of what a reporter should be continues full throttle. The murder of Indymedia correspondent Brad Will on Oct. 27 on the barricades in Oaxaca by gunmen in the employ of that southern Mexican state’s bloodthirsty governor segues into the denial of the courts to release 24-year-old Josh Wolf from prison during the life of a federal grand jury.
Wolf is charged with refusing to turn over video clips of an anarchist anticapitalist march on Mission Street during which San Francisco’s finest beat the living shit out of protesters (and at which one cop claims to have been maimed).
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is now insisting that it will entertain no further motions in the case, which insures Wolf will earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-serving imprisoned reporter in US history.
The callous and cynical response of corporate media (with some notable exceptions) to these outrages has been as grievous as the crackdown by the courts and the death squads on independent journalists. The New York Times and its accomplices — including the New Times version of the Village Voice — insinuate that Will was less than a journalist. Will, the corporados cluck, was a tree sitter and a squatter, a troublemaker rather than a young man who reported on trouble.
Similarly, Josh Wolf is often treated as a postadolescent blogger — as if blogging were not reportage — and an anarcho-symp unworthy of the concern of serious journalists who graduated from famous J-schools.
Compare how the plights of these two brave young journalists are being spun with that of the notorious Judith Miller. Miller, whose 11 mendacious front-page New York Times stories on Saddam Hussein’s fictitious weapons of mass destruction helped justify the Bush invasion that has now taken 650,000 Iraqi lives, was jailed for refusing to give up the name of a friendly neocon who outed a CIA operative the White House did not cotton to. I submit that Miller is as much an activist as Will and Wolf — she’s just on the wrong side of the barricades.
When I was a younger fool just getting started in the word trade, I was sent off to federal prison, much like Wolf. I was the first US citizen to be jailed for refusing induction in the Vietnam War military. I wrote my first articles while imprisoned at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary in San Pedro and helped formulate a convicts committee against US intervention (everywhere), for which I was regularly tossed in the hole, the prison within a prison. Jail was fertile turf in which to learn how to write.
When, finally, I was kicked out of the joint, the parole officer who had made my life hell for a year walked me out to the big iron gate at TI and snarled, “Ross, you never learned how to be a prisoner.”
Brad Will never learned how to be a prisoner either, and neither will, I trust, Josh Wolf. All of us, both inside this business and out, owe these two valiant reporters a great debt for their sacrifices in defense of freedom of the press.
Live, act — and report back — like them! SFBG
John Ross, whose latest volume, ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible — Chronicles of Resistance 2000–2006, has just been published by Nation Books, teaches a seminar on rebel journalism at San Francisco’s New College.
MEXICO CITY (Sept. 14th) – In an epiphany of how he might have to govern Mexico if, in fact, an aggrieved left opposition allows him to assume the presidency December 1st, right-winger Felipe Calderon had to be helicoptered to the bunker in the deep south of this conflictive capital, where the nation’s top electoral tribunal doing business as the TRIFE was to hand him the certificate attesting that he had, in the judges’ less-than-august opinions, won the hotly-contested July 2nd election from leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO.).
Upon emerging from the chopper, which had been accompanied by a military gunship, the stubby, balding Calderon, his eyes darting like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, was quickly hustled into the TRIFE headquarters by the back door, a full 90 minutes before the actual ceremony was to commence, a subterfuge necessitated by the presence by thousands of AMLO’s enraged supporters, some of whom had already stripped naked.
Calderon’s witnesses – members of his campaign team and functionaries of the archly-rightist PAN party who had the misfortune to arrive by land — were greeted by clods of earth and screams of “Rateros!” (Thieves) and “Fraude!” (Fraud.) The ritual unfolded under a steady barrage of rotten eggs and tomatoes that AMLO’s people kept hurling at the TRIFE bunker, a kind of Aztec version of a U.S. missile silo, to express their unhappiness with the seven-judge panel that had neither heard nor seen any evil in the maladroit machinations of President Vicente Fox, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), and the PAN to steal the election from their candidate.
On September 5th, just hours before the constitutional deadline for confirming the next president of Mexico, the TRIFE had finally handed down its eagerly anticipated decision. In the learned justices’ unanimous judgment, outgoing president Vicente Fox’s unconstitutional intromission in the electoral campaign on behalf of Calderon had put the validity of the July 2nd balloting “at risk.”
Moreover, months of venomous anti-AMLO hit pieces designed by U.S. carpetbagger Dick Morris that labeled Lopez Obrador a DANGER to Mexico in big red letters “unquestionably” impacted the results and were illegally financed by big business councils that included such transnationals as Wal Mart and Halliburton, a patently criminal act.
In addition, the election was riddled with “arithmetic mistakes.” The TRIFE’s own recalculation of the actual vote count, effected by its much-maligned twin the IFE, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Calderon had been credited with hundreds of thousands of votes that could not be substantiated by the number of ballots inside the ballot boxes. A partial recount of 9.7% of the 130,000 “casillas” (precincts) had turned up a total of 237,000 questionable votes that the TRIFE had chosen to annul, a quarter of those cast in the sample, and more than Calderon’s supposed margin which had been reduced to 233,000 out of a total 41.5 million cast.
Having duly noticed these egregious outrages, the seven judges concluded that they could not calibrate the impact of such organized criminal activity upon the final outcome and awarded the presidency to one Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa to the great delight and immediate congratulations of Mexico’s masters in Washington D.C.
Did the TRIFE go into the tank? Three of the justices are expected to be promoted to the Mexican Supreme Court when and if Felipe Calderon takes over the presidency. A fourth, Alejandro Luna Ramos, who will remain at the helm of the electoral tribunal, is a business partner of PAN topdog “El Jefe” Diego Fernandez de Cevallos – El Jefe won millions for the Ramos family from the Mexico City government before AMLO became mayor in a shady land deal involving the site of the Aztec football stadium. A Ramos sister sits on Mexico’s Supreme Court.
Lopez Obrador has suggested that the judges were willing recipients of “canonazos” (cannonades of pesos) to help them better contemplate the “validity” of the election. Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a hoary political chameleon who was Fox’s ambassador to the European Union, describes a post-electoral huddle at the home of Chief Supreme Court Justice Mariano Azuela, a Fox ally, where the Presidente warned the “TRIFitos” that should they declare the election null and avoid due to the overwhelming evidence of fraud, the Mexican economy would collapse and anarchy would reign in the streets. Although Munoz Ledo is an unsavory sort, his sources are usually impeccable.
Now that the TRIFE has legitimized the fraud, the IFE brain trust under the beady gaze of the chief architect of the July 2nd debacle, Luis Carlos Ugalde, is moving quickly to destroy the evidence. Following the modus operandi established after the stolen election of 1988 when the then-ruling PRI in connivance with the PAN ordered the ballots to be burnt by the military, the IFE has refused petitions from 16,000 suspicious subscribers to PROCESO magazine and a blue-ribbon commission of prominent members of the civil society to allow them to conduct a citizens recount of the ballots that are now, once again, under the protection of the military. Never! Ugalde and his mafia scoff. The ballots are “inviolable!” “The property of the people!”
But, on the other hand, the ballots are not “documents” open to public scrutiny as guaranteed by law, the IFE contends, and therefore are eminently “burnable” under current electoral stipulations. Ugalde’s ruling was described as “metaphysical” by National University law professor John Ackerman. According to the IFE’s hypothesis, the ballots were “documents” before they were marked by the voters but now they have been reduced to symbolic “expressions of the people’s will” and thus are candidates for the incinerator.
AMLO is sworn to preventing a repeat of the 1988 flimflam and his people are pleading with Azuela’s Supreme Court to stay the December date set for the burning – after all, an Ohio court just stepped in to save what ballots remain from Bush’s stealing of that state’s electoral votes in the smarmy 2004 presidential balloting. Not without a certain sense of déjà vu all over again, the final arbiter in this dispute may well be (who else but?) the TRIFE.
As illustrated by his armed airlift to the TRIFE silo, Felipe Calderon has a problem meeting the people he intends to govern over the next six years. In his first junket as president-elect, Fecal (as his detractors have dubbed him) took a sentimental journey to his native Morelia, the capital of the narco-ridden western state of Michoacan, where he was scheduled to lay a wreathe at the feet of that city’s namesake, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, a black defrocked priest who led the guerrilla war against the Spanish Crown several centuries before the 44 year-old Calderon first slithered from the darkness of his PANista mother’s womb.
Calderon’s family on all sides is a founding pillar of the PAN, an Opus Dei-like creature of Catholic bankers formed to denigrate Mexico’s beloved depression-era “Bolshevik” president Lazaro Cardenas, also a Michoacan native whose grandson, also Lazaro Cardenas, now besmirches that hallowed name as governor. Indeed, Calderon ‘s trip to Michoacan was designed to split Lopez Obrador’s three-party Coalition for the Good of All – young Cardenas is titularly a member of the PRD, AMLO’s home party, founded by his father Cuauhtemoc after he was swindled out of the presidency in 1988.
But Felipillo never made it to Morales’s feet (the good padre probably exhaled a sigh of relief). Hundreds of AMLO’s faithful tore down the barricades, tossed the usual rotten eggs and tomatoes at Calderon’s entourage, battled Cardenas’s state police and the elite Presidential military guard, and generally made the venue so unsafe that the wreath-laying had to be called off and the president-elect sped into a nearby locked-down convention center for a speech to a carefully-culled audience of “perfumados” (literally the perfumed ones.)
The draconian security measures at the convention center – sniffer dogs, metal detectors, pat-down searches – were not unwarranted. On the eve of Calderon’s confirmation, in Michoacan’s second city Uruapan, the capital of the state’s “hot lands” where drug cropping accounts for the whole economy, a ski-masked commando burst into a local dance hall, forced the patrons to lie face down on the dance floor under pain of being Swiss cheesed by the automatic weapons they were waving convincingly, and carefully removed five severed human heads from black plastic bags which they artfully arranged in the center of the “pista” (dance floor) with the accompanying message: “the family does not kill for money. It does not kill women. It does not kill innocents. Those who deserve to die, die. Justice is divine.”
This country has been visited by unspeakable acts of narco-terrorism in the months that Calderon has been blaspheming Lopez Obrador as “a DANGER to Mexico” (thanks Sasha for this observation). Such beheadings are now a regular feature of the cityscapes in Acapulco and Tijuana. Corpses are strewn in Baghdad-sized numbers each month in the rural outback of Sinaloa, Jalisco, Guerrero, Michoacan, and Chiapas. Judges are gunned down on their way to court at La Palma, Mexico’s maximum narco-lockup – published reports speak of a “psychosis of fear” spooking the nation’s judiciary. The brains of industry and the stock market are not immune from being splattered all over the street. Last week, the top official of a privatized customs agency part-owned by Fox’s financial secretary Francisco Gil, was cut down by professional hit men on a busy Mexico City street as the end-of-the-administration chickens begin to come home to roost. La Jornada, the left daily, has even gone on “suicide” watch – officials often blow their brains out or sever their veins with box cutters at such moments in the Mexican political dynamic.
The TRIFE’s confirmation of the stealing of the 2006 election has generated an avalanche of accolades for Felipe de Jesus – Bush and his crony ambassador Tony Garza were first in line to extend their congratulations all over again (they did so hours after the deeply flawed preliminary vote count came in July 2nd.) Spain’s Rodriguez Zapatero and his pals at REPSOL were right behind, looking to get in on the ground floor of the fire sale of privatization Calderon has pledged for PEMEX, the once-nationalized state petroleum enterprise. The U.S. State Department’s “democratic” answers to Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, Alan Garcia and Oscar Arias, along with Salvador’s fawning Tony Saca chimed in. Improbably, so did Nestor Kirschner – can Fidel and Lula be far behind?
But to my ear, the most appropriate toast to Felipe Calderon ‘s confirmation as the next president of this dangerous neighbor nation was one that was not sounded (at least not yet.) In 1994, after Ernesto Zedillo had finally relieved the reviled Carlos Salinas at the wheel of state, the still missing-in-action Subcomandante Marcos scribbled salutations to the new prez that began, much as does this chronicle, “Welcome to the Nightmare.”
This past Sunday, Lopez Obrador’s weekly packed-as-usual revival meeting in the Zocalo transpired parallel to Felipe Calderon’s “victory” celebration, held appropriately enough in a bullring in an affluent district of the capital. AMLO’s numbers as always dwarfed his diminutive rival’s – the PAN reportedly padded out the crowd by requiring the compulsory attendance of Catholic school children and their parents. and the wealthy burghers in the south of the city were said to have obligated their servants to attend.
While the President-elect swore vengeance on his enemies across town, AMLO did not. As always, he let his furious flock call Fecal bad names but eschewed even mentioning his rival. Lopez Obrador had other plans. The seven week, seven mile encampment of his followers that so vex upper and middle class “capitolinos” would stay in place through Friday night, September 15th, the eve of Mexican Independence Day when AMLO intends to deliver the “Grito” of “Viva Mexico!” to the multitudes gathered in the great square, an honor reserved for the President of Mexico.
But rather than challenging the Mexican military, AMLO’s people will then dismantle their encampments and retreat from the Zocalo for 12 hours to allow the Generals and Admirals to conduct their traditional Independence Day parade. “The army belongs to the people, not the government – we have no argument with this institution,” AMLO explained seeking to mollify his militants who are reluctant to step back. “Many members of military families voted for us July 2nd. And besides the troops are so badly paid that they can’t even support their families.”
Once the military procession which always features tanks and jet fighter planes is done with – Vicente Fox will wave it on from a balcony of the National Palace and receive it at the newly refurbished (by the PRD Mexico City government) Angel of Independence – an expected million delegates to Lopez Obrador’s National Democratic Convention (CND) will retake the Zocalo and sit in session to install AMLO as the legitimate president of Mexico.
But Fox, who was prevented from delivering his State of the Union address to congress September 1st when Lopez Obrador’s senators and deputies stormed the tribune, is said to be obsessed with decrying his final Grito from the presidential balcony overlooking the Zocalo. Cornered between his hubris and personal ambition for a notch in history, and the huge angry crowd seething in the plaza below, the outgoing president could make a fatal mistake by turning the military and/or the military police on AMLO’s people to force them out of the Tiennemens-sized square that sits at the heart of Mexico’s political life, a move that indeed invokes both Tiennemens and Tlatelolco where in 1968 hundreds of striking students were massacred by the paranoid, anti-communist president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, and a wound that has never closed here.
As Sub Marcos so eloquently waxes: “Welcome to the Nightmare.”
John Ross’s “ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible – Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006” will be published in October by Nation Books and the Blindman will set out on a tour of the left coast from border to border and beyond to flog it. But before the flogging comes the honeymoon. Sasha Crow and John Ross (they met while human shielding in Baghdad) will be traveling in Turkey and Greece for the next few weeks.
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 24th — The Congress of the country is ringed by two-meter tall grilled metal barriers soldered together, apparently to thwart a suicide car-bomb attack. Behind this metal wall, 3000 vizored, kevlar-wearing robocops — the Federal Preventative Police (PFP, a police force drawn from the army) — and members of the elite Estado Mayor or presidential military command, form a second line of defense. Armed with tear gas launchers, water cannons, and reportedly light tanks, this Praetorian Guard has been assigned to protect law and order and the institutions of the republic against left-wing mobs that threaten to storm the Legislative Palace – or so the president informs his fellow citizens in repeated messages transmitted on national television.
No, the president’s name is not Pinochet and this military tableau is not being mounted in the usual banana republic or some African satrap. This is Mexico, a paragon of democracy (dixit George Bush), Washington’s third trading partner, and the eighth leading petroleum producer on the planet, seven weeks after the fraud-marred July 2nd presidential election of which, at this writing, no winner has been officially declared. One of the elite military units assigned to seal off congress is indeed titled the July 2nd brigade.
“MEXICO ON A KNIFEBLADE” headlines the British Guardian. The typically short-term-memory-loss U.S. print media seems to have forgotten about the imbroglio just south of its borders. Nonetheless, the phone rings and it’s New York telling me they just got a call from their man on the border and Homeland Security is beefing up its forces around Laredo in anticipation of upheaval further south. The phone rings again and it’s California telling me they just heard on Air America that U.S. Navy patrols were being dispatched to safeguard Mexican oil platforms in the Gulf. The left-wing daily La Jornada runs a citizen-snapped photo of army convoys arriving carrying soldiers disguised as farmers and young toughs. Rumors race through the seven mile-long encampment installed by supporters of leftist presidential challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) three weeks ago, who have tied up big city traffic and enraged the motorist class here, that PFP robocops will attack before dawn. The campers stay up all night huddled around bum fires prepared to defend their tent cities.
The moment reminds many Mexicans of the tense weeks in September and October 1968 when, 12 days before the Olympic Games were to be inaugurated here, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz ordered the military to massacre striking students in a downtown plaza not far from where AMLO’s people are now camped out. Some 300 were killed in the Plaza of Three Cultures, their bodies incinerated at Military Camp #1 in western Mexico City. The Tlatelolco massacre was a watershed in social conflict here and the similarities are sinister– in fact, Lopez Obrador has taken to comparing outgoing President Vicente Fox with Diaz Ordaz.
Fox will go to congress September 1st to deliver his final State of the Union address; the new legislature will be convened the same day. The country may or may not have a new president by that day. In anticipation of this show-down, on August 14th, newly-elected senators and deputies from the three parties that comprise AMLO’s Coalition for the Good of All attempted to encamp on the sidewalk in front of the legislative palace only to be rousted and clobbered bloody by the President’s robocops.
With 160 representatives, the Coalition forms just a quarter of the 628 members of the new congress, but its members will be a loud minority during Fox’s “Informe.” Since the 1988 presidenciales were stolen from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD legislators have routinely interrupted the president during this authoritarian ritual in orchestrated outbursts that have sometimes degenerated into partisan fisticuffs.
The first to challenge the Imperial Presidency was Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a hoary political warhorse, who in 1988 thrust a finger at President Miguel De la Madrid, accusing him of overseeing the theft of the election from Cardenas. Munoz Ledo’s J’Acuse stunned the political class; he was slugged and pummeled by members of De la Madrid’s long-ruling PRI when he tried to escape the chamber. Munoz Ledo now stands at AMLO’s side.
But perhaps the most comical moment in the annals of acting out during the Informe came in 1996 when a brash PRI deputy donned a Babe the Valiant Pig mask and positioned himself directly under the podium from which President Ernesto Zedillo was addressing the state of the nation and wiggled insouciant signs with slogans that said things like ‘EAT THE RICH!” Like Munoz Ledo, Marco Rascon was physically attacked, his mask ripped off like he was a losing wrestler by a corrupt railroad union official — who in turn was hammer locked by a pseudo-leftist senator, Irma “La Tigresa” Serrano, a one-time ranchero singers and, in fact, the former mistress of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.
This September 1st, if martial law is not declared and the new Congress dissolved before it is even installed, the PRD delegation — which will no doubt be strip-searched by the Estado Mayor for incriminating banners — is sworn to create a monumental ruckus, shredding the tarnished decorum of this once-solemn event forever to protest Fox’s endorsement of electoral larceny. Some solons say they may go naked.
But no matter what kind of uproar develops, one can be secure that it will not be shown on national television, as the cameras of Mexico’s two-headed television monstrosity Televisa and TV Azteca will stay trained on the President as he tries to mouth the stereotypical cliches that is always the stuff and fluff of this otherwise stultifying seance. The images of the chaos on the floor of congress will not be passed along to the Great Unwashed.
There is a reptilian feel to Mexico seven weeks after a discredited Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) cemented Lopez Obrador into a second place coffin by awarding the presidency to right-winger Felipe Calderon by a mere 243,000 votes out of a total 42,000,000 cast. Both Calderon and IFE czar Luis Carlos Ugalde (Calderon was best man at Ugalde’s wedding) make these little beady reptile eyes as they slither across national screens.
Those screens have been the scenes of some of the slimiest and most sordid political intrigue of late. One of the lizard kings who is fleetingly featured on Televisa primetime is an imprisoned Argentinean construction tycoon, Carlos Ahumada, who in 2004 conspired with Fox, Calderon’s PAN, and Televisa to frame AMLO on corruption charges and take him out of the presidential election. El Peje” (for a gar-like fish from the swamps of Lopez Obrador’s native Tabasco) was then leading the pack by 18 points.
Charged by Lopez Obrador, then the mayor of this megalopolis, with defrauding Mexico City out of millions, Ahumada had taken his revenge by filming PRD honchos when they came to his office to pick up boodles of political cash for his lover, Rosario Robles, who aspired to be queen of the PRD. Although the filthy lucre was perfectly legal under Mexico’s milquetoast campaign financing laws, the pick-ups looked awful on national television — AMLO’s former personal secretary was caught stuffing wads of low denomination bills into his suit coat pockets as if he were on Saturday Night Live.
Ahumada subsequently turned the tapes over to the leprous, cigar-chomping leader of Fox’s PAN party in the Senate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos (“El Jefe Diego”) who in turn had them delivered to a green-haired clown, Brozo, who was then reading the morning news on Televisa. Then the Argentine fled to Cuba in a private plane. Televisa would air the incriminating videos day and night for months.
Apprehended in Veradero after his lover Robles was shadowed to the socialist beachfront, Ahumada spilled the beans to Cuban authorities: Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, who was then AMLO’s lead rival for the presidency, had cooked up the plot with the connivance of reviled former president Carlos Salinas, Lopez Obrador’s most venomous foe, the then attorney general, and Fox himself, to remove AMLO from the race.
The Mexican government did not ask for extradition and Ahumada’s deportation from Cuba was not seen as a friendly gesture. Within a month, diplomatic relations between Mexico and that red paradise were broken off and ambassadors summoned home. The construction tycoon has been imprisoned in Mexico City ever since he was booted out of Cuba, and was last heard from when he had his rogue cop chauffer shoot up the family SUV, a charade both Fox and Televisa tried to pin on AMLO — Ahumada had suggested he was about to release two more incriminating videos. These dubious events took place on June 6th, the day of a crucial presidential debate between AMLO and Calderon.
Then last week, Ahumada abruptly resurfaced — or at least his videotaped confession to Cuban authorities did. Filmed through prison bars, he lays out the plot step by step. Yes, he affirms, the deal was fixed up to cut AMLO’s legs out from under him and advance the fortunes of the right-wing candidate who turned out to be Felipe Calderon and not the bumbling Creel. The conspiracy backfired badly as his supporters rallied around him and Lopez Obrador’s ratings soared.
The origins of the confession tape, leaked to top-rung reporter Carmen Aristegui, was obscure. Had Fidel dispatched it from his sick bed to bolster Lopez Obrador’s claims of victory as the PAN and the snake-eyed Televisa evening anchor Joaquin Lopez Dorriga hissed? The air grew serpentine with theories. There was even one school that speculated Calderon himself had been the source in a scheme to distance himself from Fox (there had always been “mala leche” between them) and Creel, now the leader of the PAN faction in congress.
AMLO advanced a variant of this explanation — the specter of Ahumada had been resuscitated to divert attention from the evidence of generalized fraud the Coalition had submitted to the TRIFE and the panel’s impending verdict that Calderon had won the election.
Perhaps the most nagging question in this snakepit of uncertainty is what happened during the partial recount of less than 10% of the 130,000 ballot boxes ordered by the TRIFE to test the legitimacy of the IFE’s results. Although the recount concluded on August 13th, the judges have released no numbers and are not obligated to do so — their only responsibility is to certify the validity of the election.
Although AMLO’s reps in the counting rooms came up with gobs of evidence — violated ballot boxes, stolen or stuffed ballots, altered tally sheets and other bizarre anomalies — only the left-wing daily La Jornada saw fit to mention them. The silence of the Mexican media and their accomplices in the international press in respect to the Great Fraud is deafening — although they manage to fill their rags with ample attacks on Lopez Obrador for tying up Mexico City traffic.
According to AMLO’s people, 119,000 ballots in the sample recount cannot be substantiated — in about 3500 casillas, 58,000 more votes were cast than the number of voters on the voting list. In nearly 4,000 other casillas, 61,000 ballots allocated to election officials cannot be accounted for. The annulment of the casillas in which these alterations occurred would put Lopez Obrador in striking distance of Calderon and in a better world, would obligate the TRIFE to order a total recount.
But given the cheesy state of the Mexican judiciary this is not apt to happen; one of the judges who will decide the fate of democracy in Mexico is a former client of El Jefe Diego for whom the PANista senator won millions from the Mexico City government in a crooked land deal.
Meanwhile, thousands continue to camp out in a hard rain for a third week on the streets of Mexico City awaiting the court’s decision. They have taken to erecting shrines and altars and are praying for divine intervention. Hundreds pilgrimage out to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, some crawling on their knees, to ask the Brown Madonna to work her mojo. “God doesn’t belong to the PAN!” they chant as they trudge up the great avenue that leads to the Basilica. “AMLO deserves a miracle” Esther Ortiz, a 70 year-old great grandmother comments to a reporter as she kneels to pray before the gilded altar.
At the Metropolitan Cathedral on one flank of the Zocalo, a young worshipper interrupts Cardinal Norberto Rivera with loas to AMLO and is quickly hustled off the premises by the Prelate’s bouncers. The following Sunday, the Cathedral’s great doors are under heavy surveillance, and churchgoers screened for telltale signs of devotion to Lopez Obrador. Hundreds of AMLO’s supporters mill about in front of the ancient temple shouting “voto por voto” and alleging that Cardinal Rivera is a pederast.
AMLO as demi-god is one motif of this religious pageant being played out at what was once the heart of the Aztec theocracy, the island of Tenochtitlan. The ruins of the twin temples of the fierce Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli and Tlahuac, the god of the rain, is adjacent to the National Palace against which AMLO’s stage is set. Lopez Obrador sleeps each night in a tent close by.
Many hearts were ripped out smoking on these old stones and fed to such hungry gods before the Crusaders showed up bearing the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
AMLO is accused by right-wing “intellectuals” (Enrique Krauze and the gringo apologist George Grayson) of entertaining a Messiah complex. Indeed, he is up there every day on the big screen, his craggy features, salt and pepper hair, raspy voice and defiantly jutted jaw bearing more of a passable resemblance to a younger George C. Scott rather The Crucified One. AMLO’s devotees come every evening at seven, shoehorned between the big tents that fill the Zocalo, rain or shine. Last Monday, I stood with a few thousand diehards in a biblical downpour, thunder and lightening shattering the heavens above. “Llueve y llueve y el pueblo no se mueve” they chanted joyously, “it rains and rains and the people do not move.”
The evolution of these incantations is fascinating. At first, the standard slogan of “Voto Por Voto, Casilla por Casilla!” was automatically invoked whenever Lopez Obrador stepped to the microphone. “You are not alone!” and “Presidente!” had their moment. “Fraude!” is still popular but in these last days, “No Pasaran!” — they shall not pass, the cry of the defenders of Madrid as Franco’s fascist hordes banged on the doors of Madrid, 1936 — has flourished.
In this context, “No Pasaran!” means “we will not let Felipe Calderon pass to the presidency.” AMLO, who holds out little hope that the TRIFE will decide in his favor, devotes more time now to organizing the resistance to the imposition of Calderon upon the Aztec nation. Article 39 of the Mexican constitution, he reminds partisans, grants the people the right to change their government if that government does not represent them. To this end, he is summoning a million delegates up to the Zocalo for a National Democratic Convention on Mexican Independence Day September 16th, a date usually reserved for a major military parade.
Aside from the logistical impossibility of putting a million citizens in this Tiananmen-sized plaza, how this gargantuan political extravaganza is going to be financed is cloudy. Right now, it seems like small children donating their piggy banks is the main mode of fund-raising. Because AMLO’s people distrust the banks, all of which financed Calderon’s vicious TV ad campaign, a giant piggy bank has been raised in the Zocalo to receive the contributions of the faithful.
Dreaming is also a fundraiser. Some 10,000 raised their voices in song this past Sunday as part of a huge chorus assembled under the dome of the Monument to the Revolution to perform a cantata based on the words of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. This too is a form of civil resistance, Lopez Obrador commended his followers.
The first National Democratic Convention took place behind rebel lines in the state of Aguascalientes in 1914 at the apogee of the Mexican Revolution when the forces of Francisco Villa and his Army of the North first joined forces with Zapata’s Liberating Army of the Southern Revolution. The second National Democratic Revolution took place 80 years later in 1994, in a clearing in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation wedded itself to the civil society in an uprising that rocked Mexico all throughout the ’90s; eclipsed by events, the EZLN and its quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos have disappeared from the political map in the wake of the fraudulent election.
What this third National Democratic Convention is all about is now being debated in PRD ruling circles and down at the grassroots. Minimally, a plan of organized resistance that will dog Felipe Calderon for the next six years, severely hampering his ability to rule will evolve from this mammoth conclave. The declaration of a government in resistance headed by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is one consideration. The National Democratic Convention could also result in the creation of a new party to replace a worn-out PRD now thoroughly infiltrated by cast-offs from the PRI.
The Party of the Democratic Revolution has always functioned best as an opposition party. With notable exceptions (AMLO was one), when the PRD becomes government, it collapses into corruption, internecine bickering, and behaves just as arrogantly as the PAN and the PRI. No Pasaran?
Seven weeks after the July 2nd electoral debacle, Mexico finds itself at a dangerously combustible conjunction (“coyuntura”) in which the tiny white elite here is about to impose its will upon a largely brown and impoverished populous to whom the political parties and process grow more irrelevant each day. “No Pasaran!” the people cry out but to whom and what they are alluding to remains to be defined.
John Ross’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible â€“ Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books this October. Ross will travel the Left Coast this fall with both ZAPATISTAS! and a new chapbook of poetry BOMBA! and is still looking for possible venues; send suggestions to email@example.com