Friday, October 31, 2008

A visit to Chiapas, San Cristóbal, Palenque

Last weekend I was invited to give an all-day seminar in Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas, for 40 journalists. This is the southernmost state of the country and is famous for Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista movement and its rain forests. So I asked Cindy if she would like to come along, and she said, Sure. (This church is in San Cristóbal de las Casas, about an hour up into the mountains from Tuxtla.)

This is the group I presented to. Although Chiapas is almost invariably described as poor and backward, these journalists knew a lot about online journalism. The university classroom where we worked was first class in terms of its technology.

The journalists always make you feel welcome and treat you like a celebrity. Makes me stand up straighter and feel taller.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristobal is famous for its textiles, and we took advantage of their availability. It´s also famous for Subcomandante Marcos, a leader of the Zapatista guerilla movement. When he burst on the scene in 1994, I was just starting to study Spanish. I wrote a column about him and Mexico and Nafta for Business First. His ski mask and English style pipe are part of his media appeal. (His true identity has emerged in recent years. See link above.) Subcomandante Marcos is protected by a special law and goes about giving interviews, appearing on magazine covers, etc. The Zapatistas are more of a political movement than a guerilla force these days.

Palenque, a political and religious center in the rain forest

About a five-hour drive from San Cristóbal, deep in the rain forest, are the restored remains of the Mayan city of Palenque.
The stone buildings you see here were covered with stucco and painted in magnificent fashion, some few remnants of which survive.

The Mayans were very advanced in astronomy and had developed the mathematical concept of zero, which seems natural to us but was a breakthrough. They discovered it 900 years before the Arabs introduced the concept to Europe.

The Mayans also had a sophisticated form of writing in glyphs that has only recently begun to be deciphered. Their writings tell the story of their civilization, which collapsed in Palenque around 800 A.D.

The city of Palenque was abandoned after that time. It was mentioned and noticed by Spanish explorers, was mapped in the 18th century and recorded in drawings by Jean Frederic Waldeck in the 1830s but was not excavated in a systematic way until the last century.

There is a book on Palenque online at GoogleBooks, and if you have an academic bent, this is for you. If you would like something a little lighter, Wikipedia has everything that the guidebooks will tell you.

The very impressive waterfalls of Agua Azul are on the way to Palenque. The Zapatistas have control of access to the falls, and they also are attempting to control all of the related tourist industries, such as sales of crafts and mementos at the site. However, other indigenous groups are trying to muscle their way in, and there is conflict about who can set up a stand, etc.

iPhone photographs

The photos of San Cristóbal and Palenque were shot with my iPhone, but not by choice. Each of the three times I´ve flown out of Guadalajara, the people who inspect checked bags noted that I had packed a camera and advised me not to do so. Once they said they were afraid it would be crushed in the baggage hold. The last time, the person hinted that it wasn´t wise to leave something so valuable in an unlocked bag. This time it was stolen. The thief took the digital camera and carrying case but left the lanyard behind. It must have occurred in Guadalajara or Mexico City, where we changed planes, because there wasn´t time for someone to do it in Tuxtla. Live and learn.

This photo is from a postcard image of the Sumidero Canyon near Tuxtla, which we viewed from a motor launch. The walls extend 3,000 feet up at the highest point, and wildlife includes big crocodiles (not alligators), iguanas, migratory pelicans, vultures and cormorants, among other things.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Union chief begs for dough, gives away 59 Hummers

The head of the teachers union here has been begging for extra money for education. On Sunday she gave 59 Hummer H3s to her section leaders. Each of the 2009 models cost 500,000 pesos, or about $40,000. (Photo from Vanguardia)

Elba Esther Gordillo, president of the National Union of Education Workers, which is known for its hardball negotiating, said, “If I could have given them armored cars, I would have.” Evidently she´s worried about safety for her union chiefs.

On Sunday, at the close of a national union meeting, the secretary general of the union, Rafael Ochoa, handed the keys to each of the 59 section leaders. The union officials assured readers of El Mural that the Hummers will be used for work.

A teacher´s salary is about $5,000 or $6,000 a year. It´s not clear how the union gets that kind of money.

The crass self-indulgence of those entrusted with public money or responsibility is astounding.

Update Oct. 16 -- Today´s El Mural carried a followup story that revealed that the 59 Hummers were promised to the union by the government as part of a wage negotiation. So the taxpaying chumps paid for the section leaders to drive in style.

In the resulting uproar over the vehicles, the union has now invented two alternative explanations -- the Hummers are to be used for lotteries with the proceeds to go to schools for the poor. When the reporter asked local union officials about the supposed lottery plan, they didn´t know anything about it.

The other story the union invented was that the Hummer was for use by the entire union office not just the union bosses. Tell that to the boss who got to special order the color -- yellow -- of her Hummer.

Liver transplants at $100,000 per
It seems that the head surgeon in a liver transplant operation here in Guadalajara has been doing a little business on the side. Although the public hospital where he works charges $1,500 for a transplant, you could move up on the waiting list by depositing $80,000 to $100,000 in the personal private bank account of the father of the head surgeon, Luis Carlos Rodríguez Sancho (Photo from Informador).

Someone died, someone complained and the whole seedy practice was exposed. Hospital officials were shocked -- shocked -- to learn of the practice and then dismissed its importance and defended the surgeon. Officials of the university of Guadalajara took out ads in newspapers defending Rodríguez Sancho, even after the State Controller´s office found him guilty of irregularities and banned him from working in a public institution for three years. (He was fined $1,500 as well.)

The very next day, the State Controller reversed itself and said the surgeon could continue practicing at the public hospital if he does eight surgeries pro bono for every two he does on his own account.

No one at all seems interested in finding out how much money Rodríguez Sancho has raked in over the years nor who else might have gotten a cut. No one has even hinted that his actions might be criminal. The prevailing attitude seems to be that he is a kind of hero and deserves all the money he can get.

UPDATE NOV. 2 -- The New York Times just did a piece on public corruption in Mexico that shows how broadly and deeply narcotraffickers have compromised public institutions.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Causes of financial meltdown: Greenspan to credit swaps

Some of the best reporting on the financial crisis has been on the radio, surprisingly, with “This American Life´s” report called “The Giant Pool of Money”. I've also seen some insightful reporting in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The Giant Pool of Money, which you can listen to online, reflected the kind of relentless curiosity that reporters need to have. They need to keep asking why and they need to keep saying, I´m sorry, I didn´t understand that. Could you explain it again?

When we reporters start taking ourselves seriously and start writing for an audience of insiders, we often miss the opportunity to explain a big story because we don't ask the basic kinds of questions that these reporters did.

Plenty of warning
There was actually plenty of warning from many influential and credible sources, including George Soros and Warren Buffett, about the possibility of a collapse in the financial market because of rampant speculation in exotic debt derivatives. But no one is ready to listen until they can´t get a loan for a car or can´t buy a house or can´t pay the mortgage or can´t find a job. And it is also a difficult concept to explain.

Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson sounded the alarm way back in February, and specifically identified what was coming.

The New York Times has had a series of stories tracking the roots of this crisis, and today´s piece putting the blame squarely on Alan Greenspan had great documentation of Greenspan's role as an advocate of a hands-off policy on credit-default swaps.

Risky derivatves
At the heart of the financial crisis are derivatives known as credit-default swaps, which function a bit like commodities do on the Chicago exchanges except that they´re not regulated and there is not necessarily a bushel of corn at the end of the paper trail.

As the articles above explain so well, the buyers of these derivatives were often completely in the dark about the underlying assets and really didn't care. They traded the paper and made money betting on trends in the debt market.

Can't beat people to the truth

Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist of a century ago, used to say that you can beat people to the news, but you can't beat them to the truth. Put another way, people want newspeople to tell them what happened and they're not ready to listen to news media telling them they're too debt-ridden or they're burning too much fuel or their planet is melting until they can't fill their gas tank or the water from the ice cap starts lapping at their door.

A rising political star assassinated by narcos

“The slaying of a rising political star is ascribed to his refusal to have any contact with drug traffickers.” -- LA Times

MEXICO CITY -- Until he was gunned down over the weekend, Salvador Vergara Cruz was a man of some influence with a promising future in his political party. Mayor of an important resort town outside Mexico City, and a close confidant of his state's governor, Vergara apparently felt sufficiently at ease to travel without a specially assigned team of bodyguards despite receiving death threats from purported drug lords.

The 34-year-old Vergara was killed by hooded assassins armed with semiautomatic rifles as he drove with other officials toward his home city of Ixtapan de la Sal on Saturday afternoon.

Read more.

The Interamerican Press Association recently came out with a report on the status of press freedom in Mexico. It´s a very dangerous place to work.

Update: The latest issue of the Economist tells why it´s so hard to root out corruption. The highest authorities are involved, just as in the movie Traffic.

The arrest of senior officials shows the government’s resolve in fighting drug traffickers—and that the rot in law enforcement reaches the top

AT LAST the government seemed to be enjoying some success in its battle against the drug gangs. On October 25th Eduardo Arellano Félix, a leader of the Tijuana “cartel”, was arrested, the last of five brothers still at large who had run what was once one of the world’s most powerful trafficking syndicates. Tijuana has been the scene of a vicious battle between drug factions and the security forces, with over 150 murders in the past month alone. Mr Arellano (pictured above) was captured by Mexican officials acting on information from the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US Marshals Service. It was an example of the kind of co-operation that officials in both countries hope will bring success for the crackdown against the drug gangs launched by Felipe Calderón when he took office as Mexico’s president almost two years ago.

But only two days later came news of more worrying recent arrests, those of two top officials at the attorney-general’s office who were among those supposedly leading the crackdown. Miguel Colorado González was in charge of assigning police to organised-crime investigations; Fernando Rivera Hernández was one of his deputies, in charge of intelligence. Three more junior officials were also indicted, and 30 were fired pending further investigation. According to investigators, the arrested officials had been passing information to the Sinaloa cartel, a more powerful rival to the Tijuana mob. They had received up to $450,000 a month in bribes, in some cases going back several years.
Read more

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

20 thugs steal 5 planes from army

My favorite new crime story is about how 20 armed men overcame one guard at an airport in La Perla, Sinaloa, a hotbed of drug activity, and stole 5 Cessna airplanes from the army.

According to a report in El Debate, some of the thugs gassed up the planes on the runway and flew off with them. The rest of the group left as they came.

The lone guard, who was bound hand and foot and left in his office, is being held on suspicion of involvement in the heist.

The five planes were among nine that the army had confiscated in January. A story in Milenio said that the planes had previously been used in the so-called Golden Triangle to ferry fertilizer and other supplies for production of illegal drugs. So it seems that the criminals were just taking back what they felt belonged to them.