August, 1998.


Another quotation from ‘The News,’ August 16, ‘98: Allyn Hunt. I’ve been referring to this paper as the ‘belt-way-rag.’ That’s unfair. Between the Monica / Bill saga it does allow some breathing spaces. Here’s one:

“COLUMN FROM GUADALAJARA. Poverty and Rights’ Talk.

“Throughout Mexico’s economic crises, which began in 1970 and were actually a series of presidential errors concerning the limitations of managed greed, the least able in this society have had to pay again and again . . . and are still paying.

“Of course, one of the reasons for the flawed bureaucratic response to such crises and to the problems of the poor (how to survive the depredations of a society that encourages and rewards greed) is distancing concepts such as rights rhetoric.

“As Mexican authoress Julieta Campos (“What Shall We Do With The Poor?) says, “the attitude of Mexican politicians and officials towards . . . poverty is one of distance and unawareness.” They are involved with statistics, not people, she says. “There is a coldness in this approach rather than a human understanding of the true conditions in which the poor live. . . . The current policy is about compensating people ‘selectively’ with one hand and allowing macroeconomic measures to take away with the other.”

“ What is needed? Not rights, but “. . . productive reactivation of rural communities, promotion of self -efficiency, and aid (to) small business productivity in the city.”

“Such tough minded analysts suggest the goal of solving the problem of joblessness through global industrialization is so riddled with dependency (opposed to any kind of self-sufficiency) that it is no longer considered effective in most “Third World” nations.”

This love affair with globalization seems to have caught two of the republics high profile pols with their pants down: El Presidente Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon and DF Governor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, although the latter pays lip-service to social responsibility. As for the former his attitude towards everything seems to be one of ‘distance and unawareness.’ The peso falls, economic indicators turn negative he continues his Pollyanna rhetoric.

Currently El Presidente is dabbling with what is called the ‘Fobaproa’ scandal.

After the 1994 collapse of the peso and Salinas’s unrestrained privatization of the banks, needless to say, all 18 national banks failed. And equally unsurprisingly these unswerving bastions of free enterprise, competition and less government where the first to run bleating to the government for a bailout: the great free-enterprise road builders had to be, and still are being, bailed out too.

Banks got it in the form of Foxboro. Foxboro is an acronym for a taxpayer financed company organized to buy free-enterprise debt for the banks to stay solvent. As they are now: apparently. But Foxboro, itself is now bankrupt to the tune of 552 billion pesos, 62 billion $US.

Fobaproa cannot recover the debt it bought and the banks are playing coy.

In the privatization binge the banks where taken over by the usual socio-paths, indeed, some of the richest people in the world. And their unswerving need to get even richer made them borrow money from their own banks without the slightest intention of paying it back. That is one of the perks of owning your own bank. Many of these socio-paths are of course good friends of, or at least in a position to put pressure on, El Presidente himself. And they do. So as his proposal stands now his government intends to convert all Fobaproa debt into public debt for the taxpayer to pay over many decades. Letting the socio-paths off Scot-free.

The opposition parties are demanding that the shysters that stole the money should damn well pay it back. El Presidente just doesn’t seem capable of grasping that logic.

The PRI is playing coy too. Evidently there is evidence it financed its last presidential election campaign on some of that donated stolen money.

There is nothing new about this tactic. Canada did it for the free-enterprising Reichman Brothers, bailing them out of their Canary Wharf debacle. Reagan bailed out the US Savings and Loans using the same technique. We all think, because the media has forgotten, that all these debt problems, including those much vaunted third world debts, trumpeted in the early ‘80’s, have gone away. They haven’t. It’s just that you and I, and our children and grandchildren and no doubt their grandchildren, will pay to keep some of the richest people in the world in a style to which they have become accustomed.

Anyway, before the ‘Fobaproa’ thing came on the scene El Presidente promised, at the request of the Chiapas peace commission, to reduce the army’s presence.
The army loves strutting its stuff,
goose-stepping, trooping the colours
every evening on the Zocalo.
At the time there were 40,000 troops. Now there are reportedly 70,000 and four years after the Zapatista cry for help the ‘indigena’ are more deprived than ever. Presidente’s solution to the problem is to talk Pollyanna and chuck big infrastructure subsidies at international corporations.

I doubt the Zapatistas have much hope against such odds. Already many of the ‘independent’ municipalities are surrendering. Marcos hasn’t been heard from for months. But what will happen is the dissatisfaction will spread: already has, to Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Campeche and even the northern state of Chihuahua.

But, International Liberal consumer democracy is far too pervasive for persons or organizations of integrity to oppose. Functionaries of proxy governments will continue blind faith in their various warm-feelie slogans, oblivious to the effect they have outside the loop, and grievances will just keep festering. People like you and me will become more and more ashamed to be a part of the human race.

And despite his blind faith in the army the army itself continues to erode public respect earned over many years: organizing local goon squads to continue the dirty work in Chiapas and support of the drug cartels. There hasn’t been a wholesale slaughter in Chiapas since Acteal before Christmas but army trained and organized, low profile PRI goon-squad killings continue. Plausible denial!

The army is also committed to the drug cartels. You wouldn’t believe it watching these pansies decked-out in comic opera get-ups prancing around the zocalo on Independence Day. Recently a squad of twenty soldiers stationed at Benito Juarez airport were caught in an illegal immigrant scam and facilitating the trans shipment of drugs. Ironically the Pentagon is equipping these marauding murderous thugs to prevent such activity. And El Presidente cannot see the forest for the trees, or in this case the deadwood!

Poor old Governor Cuauhtemoc has become squeezed in the classic liberal dilemma: promising the Sun, while delivering a chunk of terrestrial rock. I remember all the festivities on the zocalo last July when he was elected. People in Canada e-mailed me saying how fortunate I am to witness such a heroic event. I, having lived all my life in - what is dubbed euphemistically - a democracy knew better.

His big mistake is confronting the ‘vendadores ambulantes.’ these people are street vendors who have been forced to come to the city having been thrown off their land. More fall-outs from the great globalization gamble. Of course it’s other people’s lives that are being gambled, in this case the ‘ambulantes

Streets all over Mexico are clogged with their stalls. Regular merchants justifiably complain. But Cuauhtemoc is more interested in the sound bite. What else can he do? He clears them in one place, with police and tear gas, only to have them re-appear elsewhere. He does not deal with the root of their problem: they’ve been kicked off their land, for God’s sake!

Apart from the ‘ambulantes’ the scandals started immediately. He promised so many things. Upon assuming office he declared the city to be so deeply in debt many of his fancy promises had to be abandoned. Is it any wonder the public looks upon liberal politicians in any country with a deep sense of repugnance?

His chief of security was a convicted kidnapper in Baja California. The chief and many of his lesser officials in the prosecutors office, Cuauhtemoc appointees, were, still are, being found to have criminal records. Resignations occur every week. Really, after seven decades of PRI can anyone be clean?

He promised to reduce crime. Well, many media are saying we never realistically expected him to make a dent in crime so soon but we didn’t expect him to go backwards. This after a dozen mounted police were indicted for abducting minor girls into their unit stable, holding them for days, and raping them. An elite unit, the Jaguars, took the law into their own hands just before Christmas, arrested some teenage hoodlums, tortured them and left their bodies in a dump. Jaguars are the military in police uniforms. Many say some of Cuauhtemoc’s problems with crime are due too many generals in civil police positions.

I am only, here, describing the tip of the iceberg. Truly crime is no worse here than any big city. Indeed, statistics, if they are to be believed, show it to be on the decline or at least stabilizing. But if you do get robbed on the street there is some chance the perpetrator is an army corporal, following orders, dressed up as a policeman!

Cuauhtemoc is the son of a general, the popular second PRI president Lazaro Cardenas, and an ex-governor of Michoacan. He’s been in the loop all his life, indeed, and all round-sheltered little boy. What the hell does he know about running a city or a hot-dog stand for that matter? “Functionaries of proxy governments.” Wow, there’s one if ever there was one!

Anyway, I’ve been traveling for the last two and a half months. I have the opportunity to see first hand the devastation ‘macroeconomic measures’ and ‘global industrialization’ are wringing out of this world. So, this is what I saw.


Mexican cities follow a pattern. They are crowded and densely populated but they do not sprawl. When approaching or leaving there is a distinct break-line between urban and rural. Unfortunately this line is under pressure and not always perfect. Inexplicably mexicanos are rapidly capitulating to all our bad urban habits.

Still, they know how to build cities: or I should say knew, up to about the 1950’s. This is why I came here. To experience the, arguably, largest, fastest growing city in the world. I came with trepidation’s. This city’s reputation hardly reflects the facts. Yes, there is crime; yes there are high levels of contamination and the traffic and crowds are threatening. But between the mayhem there is tranquility and urban beauty.

That is DF. There are dozens of provincial cities and towns were there is limited to no mayhem. Veracruz, Comitan, San Cristobal de las Casas, Tule, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Tepoztlan, Puebla, Morelia, Leon, Guanajuarto, Cuernevaca, Queretaro.

These cities, and I have visited them all, have a well-preserved ‘Centro Historico.’ Surrounding it are the traditional narrow streets defined by brightly coloured low-rise buildings. These were once residential but have now been converted into a variety of commercial uses, while retaining some residential: retail, automotive, anything that does not, apparently, disturb the neighbourhood.

Where ever I turned there is the small ‘rincon,’ the quiet square, where mothers can take the kids to play or where older neighbours can meet to solve the problems of the world. Traditional urban Mexico is built around a network of pedestrian scaled streets connecting a variety of plazas. These public urban spaces are essays in colour texture and space: arboreal shade, parterres, cobblestone pavements, masonry walls and, of course, the ubiquitous palms and bougainvillea’s.

Separated from the core, usually by ill-conceived North American commercialism, ‘edge city,’ are the squatter shantytowns. Most cities have them. DF has them to the extent the city is, in fact, a do-nut with a densely populated ring surrounding a virtually de-populated inner core: Tlatlelolco accommodates one million inhabitants, Colonia La Condesa, right in Centro, 11,000.

That is the pattern rendered into its simplest four-part form: Centro Historico, multi-use surrounds, ‘edge city’ and the squatters, or barrios.

It is easy to recognize the ‘edge city’ in Comitan, Chiapas. This small southern city is on the Pan-Am highway. The latter skirts the city as a stream of free-standing commercial, gas stations and parking lots any resident of Whalley would revel in. But a few steps away, the traditional city and its network of pedestrian scale survives.

I don’t want to give the impression all Mexican cities are the same; even so they follow this general pattern. Guanajuarto, for instance has imposed the pattern on a virtual cliff side. Leon is reputed to be heavily industrialized yet it has found the energy to develop its Centro Historico. San Miguel Alende lives up to it’s reputation both as a very beautiful city, following the pattern, and a centre for obtrusive gringo tourism. Morelia the university and Government capitol of agricultural (worlds best avocados) Michoacan, too, follows the pattern.

But Oaxaca stands out. It has all of the above characteristics but Centro Historico has been developed with particularly attention. And it is not just for the tourist. Centro is busy and crowded night and day. Mexicanos use their public spaces.

Centro Historico, Oaxaca, has three interlocking public urban spaces that is the Plaza principale, the zocalo, with the public market adjacent and Catedral de Oaxaca overlooking. A well-used bandstand occupies the center.

Some two kilometres to the north ‘Museo Centro Cultural’ connects to this complex by way of ‘Avenida Macedonio Alcala,’ a pedestrian mall. ‘Museo Centro Cultural’ is a US$119m recent renovation (think priorities ???) of ‘El Convento Santo Domingo and ‘El Templo de Santo Tomas de Guzman.’ The latter’s interior is the most Rococo, prolific use of gold leaf imaginable, recently restored, and awe inspiring.

Quite inadvertently I arrived on July 15. Two weeks commencing July 16 is the folkloric festivity of ‘Gualeguetza,’ or ‘Los Lunes del Cerro’: celebrating the eight distinct ethnic groups of the state. And equally by accident my room had a balcony on the second floor, grand stand view, overlooking Macedonio Alcala, the main route of the parades.

For days I watched colourful ethnic costumes, bands, dances, banners, people (some of them had distinct oriental features and, indeed, one of Oaxaca’s regions is called China - another Canada). Everywhere there was dancing music and food. Yes the food: ‘dulces regionale’ literally tons of it on creaking ‘ambulantes’ stalls, sweet, sweet, yuk, and covered with buzzing wasps. Still, every one was buying and eating.

But yet another pageant was occurring. Oaxaqenuos were about to elect a new state governor. In the days leading up to the election the town was a-buzz. Elections here are noisy and popular. Jose Murat of the PRI ( Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico’s ruling party) eventually won. Judging from his final rally in the zocalo it was no surprise. After bands, people and unions paraded through the street all morning crowds congregated in the zocalo to hear his demagogic speech. The place was packed. Obviously the union, especially the Petroleos, had wangled their members the day off. Victory was obvious and for the rest of the day everyone danced to that to the tunes (din?) of three conflicting bands.

The other parties, the PRD (the Democratic Revolutionary Party - ostensibly to the left) and the PAN (the National Action Party - small business) put up a lame effort, knowing full well the pre-ordained outcome. Don’t count the PRI out, yet!

Close to Oaxaca are the ‘ruinas’ Monte Alban and Mitla. Mitla is the most beautiful of all the ‘ruinas.’ The only one to take my attention. It is well preserved in typical warm, yellow/green sedimentary building stone so typical of the region. It is laid out in four quadrangles all originally well preserved, yet not reconstructions.

Urban Mexico may, reputedly, be rooted in the tradition inherited from Colonial times. But it’s tradition ante-dates colonial. And nowhere is this more evident than the ritualistic public urban spaces the zocalos, at Mitla.


First class autobus is the way to travel. You see the country in relative luxury, inexpensively. Mind you, first class isn’t always available. Second class is almost as good, just slower. The chicken bus, in which, like as not, you could sit next to a crate of chickens, seems to be a thing of the past: except in Guatemala.

On the way to Veracruz, the bus takes four hours, you pass the Volkswagen plant in Puebla and descend the mountain, Ciudad Mexico is 2,400m altitude, through cultivated farmland punctuated by the odd forest cover. Getting out of the peripheral urban chaos of Ciudad Mexico doesn’t take long.

“The odd forest cover.” Mexico, between cities, isn’t really rural. It’s more like a factory floor, the land is so intensively used and abused. As for forest cover, well, the media plays up the depletion of the Amazon rain forests and recently there have been reports of smoke from forest fires in Chiapas reaching Texas. But depletion has been going on for decades and is still going on. And from what I could see the smoke from forest fires was definitely combined with smoke from campesinos’ slash burning.

Agri-business and Pemex are very evident on the Atlantic coast but as a general observation in both Mexico and Guatemala the predominant land use is grazing cattle. Cattle can be seen grazing between the charred stumps of what recently was the forest: between the ever-present Pemex pipes and pumps. Land that was cleared decades ago, now pastureland, still shows evidence of charred stumps. Cattle can find fodder in the most unlikely places: on precipitous mountainsides not yet completely cleared, between rocks and accompanying campesinos still wielding machetes. The terrain is rocky: maybe unsuitable for arable farming!

Another predominant feature is the proliferation of freeways: autopistas. The toll road to Veracruz is, I suppose, an engineering feat, as I suppose, is the net-work of national freeways, but still an incredible waste of land: unsophisticatedly designed, following out-dated North American concepts, locked into the need for the turning radius at the expense of thought. Definitely a boondoggle social-welfare programmed for those rich, free enterprise, business-tycoon friends of the government.

Oh and yet another inescapable feature, the war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Chiapas is quiet for the time being but the war, that’s the real meaningful war, between the two life-giving essentials is raging. Everywhere, Mexico, Guatemala, in the remotest slash-burnt areas, on charred stumps, on abandoned broken-down homesteads, on rock faces the battle rages: red and white slogans of Coke versus red white and blue Pepsi.

Veracruz to Villahermosa is much the same as the drive from DF except the land is essentially flat. Indeed, approaching the latter, the Rio Grijalva delta, its a series of inundated flood plains and bridges. Yet, even there cattle roam. The appetite for McDonald’s’ is insatiable.

Palenque is a busy village about 13 km from the celebrated ‘ruinas.’ It comprises one main street choked with tourist junk, ‘ambulates,’ restaurants but of a nature attractive only to the itinerant. You wouldn’t want to stay there long.

The ruins are the usual piles of boring stone. I think I have said this before and I should, once again confess my preference: I’d much rather sip cappuccino on Isabel la Catolica and watch the pretty girls than sweat it out among the ‘ruinas.’ Unless you are a professional archaeologist or a committed amateur ruin-appeal, surely, is strictly aesthetic. What with the gray aged stone contrasting the ubiquitous textured greenery, great photo-ops?

Well, I walked the 13k. Early in the morning it was quite mild but gradually, later, the sweat began to pour.

There have been many recent clearings of new pyramids and temples. The palace and tower seem to be much more extensive then when I was last there. It’s still worth climbing the Temple of the Inscriptions and then descend inside to see the tomb of King Pakal. But you have to wait a while. The place is packed with Europeans.

Talking of tourists. I got talking to a young man from London on a business trip, oil obviously, to Villahermosa. He’d rented a car to take a brief diversion and was flying home that night. Being on the move, it is very difficult engaging the locals in conversation: not that I don’t try and have often succeeded. For one thing they are naturally reticent and seem to be resentful towards itinerants. So here as elsewhere on the move most of my brief socialising is done ‘en ingles.’

Anyway, following the creek on the way back, still in the ‘parque ruinas, ’ there were half a dozen teenage girls flapping around in the “Bano del reina” a pool just under a waterfall. They looked so cool and refreshed I dove in with them. Boy did I ever need that. We all had our cloths on, of course. Skinny dipping in Mexico? Not in a million years!

Bonampac, deep in the Lacondona, next. A eleven year old Lacondona ‘chica,’ Balthaza, was our guide. She knew her stuff too.

And then across the Rio Usumacinta to Peten, Flores and Guatemala.
I don’t know what is more threatening,
the army or the alligators.
What a contrast. In Chiapas, the Lacondona is still somewhat intact. The army is everywhere. Even our ‘ lancha’ was stopped by the army for one final check (after four previous on the way from Palenque).

On the Guatemala side of Rio Usumacinta there is no Lacondona. All that remains are charred stumps and ubiquitous scrawny cattle.

To relegate Guatemala as “between” may be harsh but it can hardly be compared to Mexico. Mexico is not third world: certainly La Ciudad de Mexico is not. Guatemala is!

Flores is fours hours chicken bus from ‘el rio.’ Flores is a quiet little village, really, built on an island in Lago Peten Itza. You could leave a hundred quetzales on the central plaza and pick it up the next day. Not so the rest of the country.

On the coast the climate is tropical, sweaty hot, unrelenting. La Ciudad de Guatemala, ‘Guate’ as they call it, is quite the opposite, high in the interior mountains. When it isn’t raining it is mild and clear.

But my visit there was somewhat tarnished. Sunday morning, on leaving for Antigua I had a machete thrust in my tummy by two guys rifling my pockets shouting money, money, money.
Munny, munny, munny!
Let em’ have it. Luckily that’s all they wanted and didn’t take my ‘ mochila’ or my money belt (‘gracias hija’ Margot) in which I had Q1, 000.00, credit cards and passports. But shaken, I got off the chicken-bus too quickly in Antigua looking for a safe place, thoughtlessly leaving my ‘mochila’ behind. Well, at least I have my valuables, thought I, but I’ll have to buy new under wear.

Then, just as I was berating myself a charming young lady introduced herself, on the street,
Who the hell . . .?
in a manner that left me wracking my brain to remember were we had met before. Of course we hadn’t and after being invited to a cheap hotel the penny dropped and well . . . thanxz but not thanxz! That’s Antigua. After that I took a room in a hotel that was far too expensive and called ‘mi hijo’ Roger.

Then I had the bright idea of hanging around the bus area to see if the chicken bus was on a shuttle that would bring it back. And it was. No I couldn’t believe it. There was the same driver.
Phew, that was lucky!
He had my ‘mochila,’ God bless him. So I gave him Q50.00 and thanqued my lucky stars.

Antigua, Panajachel and Chichicastenango. Have all seen better days. They are essentially Price Club type repositories of mass produced machine made handcrafts. The poor ladies peddling this stuff looked harassed and underfed, usually towing youngsters, cradling babies. They are not crafts people they are ‘vendadoras’ trying to move a surfeit of merchandise that even a double boom in tourists couldn’t deplete.

Chichicastenango market is a far cry from the pageant of colour and activity I remember. The stalls are large, covered in black plastic obscuring the larger view of vibrant activity. They range, now, down every side street. Vendors harass, kissed by global free-marketeers. Browsing is more like running a gauntlet.

And if that is not enough the weather in July, in Guatemala, is depressing. Blame it on El Nino!

So it is in Chiapas. In Comitan and San Cristobal de las Casas it rains all day. But they are very pretty little cities and in the brief moments of sunshine it’s a pleasure to just sit in the zocalo and watch.

Puerto Escondido is a fine place if you are a surfer. If not and you get talking to some of the youngsters from all over the world who are, then after you’ve discussed the big wave there isn’t much else to do.

Except the damage from last falls ‘huracan Paulina’ is still evident. The road to Oaxaca from the coast winds through the mountains, skirting precipices that got me thinking as I looked over the edge. And every bridge we crossed was under repair or being totally renewed because of the damage. Large trees were still up-rooted. Mudslides still hadn’t been cleared. Farms were still being re-built.

Not so many grazing cattle and charred stumps here, though. Maybe the land is better suited for arable cultivation. It looks like it. Or maybe the charred stumps are long, long gone!

On, then, to Oaxaca and, of course, the first introduction is ‘edge city.’


One of the great public squares of the world.
La Plaza de la Constitucion de Mexico DF
Preparing once again to celebrate El Grito

La Plaza de la Constitucion is once again being decorated in preparation for the September 16th. Independence Day celebrations. This is where I came in.

‘Guan!’ That was quick. It hardly seems like yesterday I kissed Julie ‘haste luege,’ at YVR, sixteen months ago, May 7, 1997. But, that’s it. Coming to DF I was scared out of my wits by the horror stories. I expected to get the next flight home.

At the end of September I’ll be heading off to the UK to check out some old haunts. Now I’m back to the same trepidation’s. Not from horror stories. Just from accounts of the high cost of living, especially, with the Canadian peso in the tank. I may get the next flight home because I cannot afford to live there.

Okay, no more Alligator Reports.
Claudia Rivera Flores and Roger Kemble
Parque San Martin. Colonia La Condesa DF,
August 1998.
When I get back from the UK I’ll turn all this raw material into a book. Thanqx for being so patient, having your in-basket clogged every month. I’ll be in Vancouver tomorrow. I hope we can get together for a chat.

Adios Mexico: adios Adriana, Jim, Gustavo, Hugo, Jose, Julio, Elizabeth, Peter, Diana, Monica, Senorita Marina, Marie-Elena, Abril, Jorge, ‘UNAM posgrado clase de arquitectura 1998, Dr Mora, enfemera Lydia y el cuerpo de Hotel Isabel, y especialamente mi amiga Claudia.’ I will never see you again and I am sad.

Roger Kemble
Hotel Isabel
Centro Historico
La Ciudad de Mexico DF.