Lágrimas en El Caldo – Tears in the Soup

As with many large, traditional families, it is the youngest daughter’s responsibility to never marry and to live with and care for her parents in their declining years. And that is how Tita, youngest daughter, the cook for her family, and the protagonist of Laura Esquivel’s book Like Water for Chocolate found herself in the sad position of preparing the wedding feast for her lover Pedro and his bride. He had married her very own older sister. Understandably, tears were flowing in the kitchen on that day. The groom managed a quick visit to the kitchen to present Tita with a bouquet of roses and declared his undying love in spite of being caught up in a marriage of convenience with her sister. Tita knew no one could be allowed to see those roses as there would be questions, so she stirred them into a sauce for the quail she was preparing, creating on the spot Codorniz en Salsa de Pétalos de Rosas, or Quail in Rose Sauce.

The dish she created, infused with her tears, the roses given to her by her lover, and her voluptuous and unfulfilled sexual longing, had quite an effect on the guests at the wedding banquet. In fact, Tita’s Codorniz en Salsa de Pétalos de Rosas served as an aphrodisiac for them, and they ended up behaving in ways that were quiet a departure from their normal sedate lives.

The idea of the mood of the chef influencing the mood of the diner is not new and certainly not just another example of Laura Esquivel’s delightful story telling ability, known in painting as well as writing as “Magical Realism.” In this case she is drawing deep into the well of her heritage. In times gone by many an indigenous man would see his wife or mother pounding her frustrations into the masa, or stirring her anger into the beans and the man would refuse to eat, perhaps feigning indigestion, for fear the frustration and anger would be transmitted to him through the food. And the women also knew to take some quiet time to sort things out before heading for the kitchen. It’s a good thing Warren Hardy’s staff is always in a good mood when they present coffee, tea, and cookies at the morning break to the students taking the Warren Hardy Foundation Course.

In most traditional indigenous tribes in the United States, women to this day do not prepare food for their families when they are “on their moon,” or menstruating. This is not because they are “unclean” as some have supposed, but rather an ancient and profound understanding of the mood swings caused by hormonal changes at this time. Maybe this is the origin of the custom in some restaurants when a smiling chef comes out of the kitchen and greet the diners. Reassurance. Maybe it is more important for our digestion to meet the chef of our favorite restaurant than it is to be on good terms with the waiters! Magical Realism lives.

Did you know that at one time drunkenness was punishable by death in Mexico? Find out more in next weeks Comida Mexicana.

Posted in Mexican Food Recipes, Newsletter Archive | Leave a comment


One of the first verbs we learn in Spanish is gustar: to like. Me gusta mucho las enchiladas. I like enchiladas very much. Or when we are introduced to someone we say, Mucho gusto, Javier. Nice to meet you Javier, or in a lmore literal sense, “I like meeting you Javier.” Now we want to say we don’t like something, and we say “No me gusta las enchiladas.” That is correct, and we can express the same thing by saying, Me disgustan las enchiladas. The verb disgustar does not mean we are disgusted by something, rather we just don’t like it. So when a native speaker tells you she doesn’t care for a certain restaurant, it doesn’t mean she finds it disgusting.

To dislike: disgustar

To disgust: asquear

Did you get stood up? Or, did you not quite make yourself clear about where to meet? Find out in the next Gringoism.

Posted in Mexican Slang, Newsletter Archive | Leave a comment

Vaccinated Your portfolio Lately?

In his most valuable, funny, and well crafted book, Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, published by University of Texas Press in Austin, (1994) Joseph J. Keenan serves up page after page of what can be called gringoisms: common misusages of Spanish that English-speakers are susceptible to when trying to speak Spanish.

Keenan also makes reference to what happens with the crossover in languages when Spanish-speaking residents of the United States attempt to adapt to their new language, English. He cites an apocryphal example that could certainly travel either way on the linguistic freeway; “Voy a vacunar la carpeta.”

Well now, that is perfectly clear, isn’t it? We all know exactly what that means. “I’m going to vacuum the carpet.” Except, it is spoken in true Spanglish and really means “I’m going to vaccinate the portfolio.”

Carpet: tapete or alfombra

Vacuum cleaner: aspirador de polvo or un vacuo.

In the next Gringoism you will learn how a certain tense in Spanish can make you tense if you don’t pay very close attention.

Posted in Mexican Slang, Newsletter Archive | Leave a comment

Visitors to San Miguel de Allende: Don’t Believe Hype

Visitors to Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende: Don’t believe ‘hype’
by Angela Kocherga / KENS 5 Border Bureau
Posted on May 6, 2011 at 10:05 PM

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mx. — The latest State Department travel warning for Mexico highlights the hot-spots –but what about the rest of the country? The perception that Mexico is dangerous has hurt some tourist spots – places where drug violence is not a threat.

With its colonial architecture, nearly perfect climate and rich culture, San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico has long been a favorite with Americans.

“We sold everything we owned, bought a van and moved to Mexico,” says Tuli Hardy.

Tuli Hardy and her husband now run a language school.

We spoke to some mothers who are spending the spring learning Spanish in San Miguel with their young children.

“I let my kids walk alone to school,” says mom Bridgette Hart.

Back home in Portland, Oregon where the drug war dominates news about Mexico, some questioned whether it’s safe.

“Absolutely. Everyone thinks we’re crazy,” visitor Amanda Houston says.

But, even this place many see as the perfect getaway cannot escape the perception that all of Mexico is a dangerous. And that hurt tourism.

“Everybody took a dip and some took a dive with their businesses. So it was tough,” explains Hardy.

The past couple of years it translated to a decline in enrollment at the language school by at least half. Things are starting to improve.

One woman we spoke to left Dallas for Aspen. Now, she’s considering a move to San Miguel.

“Don’t believe all the hype about the violence. I think that this particular area, San Miguel, is quite safe and I feel very comfortable here,” says Spanish student Monica Ebaugh.

While many residents and visitors clearly consider San Miguel perfectly safe, there have been travel warnings recently about roads leading here that suggest organized crime is creeping closer and closer to a place many Americans consider a haven and others call home.

In February, gunmen attacked two ICE agents on a federal highway in neighboring San Luis Potosi. And lingering concerns about narco checkpoints in Northern Mexico scared many Texans who used to drive here.

“I’ll be able to tell people I just drove it and don’t worry,” says restaurant owner Robin Spencer.

After staying off the roads for awhile, Spenser will make the drive again this month to visit her daughter in Dallas. She hopes to reassure others as San Miguel gears up for the summer vacation season.

“It still has a magical feeling to it,” said one fan.

There’s hope that magical feeling will replace any fears Americans have about traveling to this part of Mexico.


Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

What You Didn’t Know About Tequila

Wednesday, May 4, 2011 21:01 ET

What you didn’t know about tequila

We plumb the colorful history of Cinco de Mayo’s favorite drink, from Aztec tradition to spring break shot

By Felisa Rogers

Tequila: From Aztec cocktail to spring break shot


The best tequila I ever drank came to me in a plastic jug. I was young, 20 maybe, with a decidedly unrefined palate. I certainly didn’t think twice about drinking from the unmarked plastic jug that our friend Danny proffered to me. Hey, it was alcohol, right? But even with my unrefined tastes, the second that tequila touched my lips I understood it was something special. It was so smooth, limes would have been an insult.

Danny was just down from the mountains of Jalisco. The jug came straight from a little distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, which sits on a hill above rolling fields of agave — the domain of the ancient Cuervo and Sauza families, and home to hundreds of better distilleries. As Cinco de Mayo draws near, our thoughts drift to this tequila Valhalla and it seems an appropriate time to spill some ink on the drink beloved to sophisticates and sorority girls alike.

Tequila and her living ancestor mezcal are made from the hearts of the agave plant. If you drive through the Tequila region, row upon row of agaves flash by, like giant half-buried pineapples or colonies of sea anemones. Despite its sharp thorns and blue-green hue, the agave is closer in kin to the lily than the cactus. One hundred and six varieties of agave, or maguey, grow in Mexico, and the Mexican devotion to the plant is rooted in ancient history. The Olmecs referred to fermented agave as "a delight for the gods and priests," and the Aztecs worshiped Mayahuel, goddess of maguey, who was followed everywhere by a cohort of 400 drunken rabbits. Her husband Patecatl was the god of pulque, a slimy yet highly nutritious drink with the alcohol content of a domestic American beer.

Essentially, the story of how tequila came to be is the story of how Mexico came to be. An Indio idea married to Spanish ambition, influenced by the East, popular in the West. It’s a story of highs and lows that shift depending on your perspective: Aztecs fermenting ague miel scooped from the hearts of agave, Don Cenobio Sauza defending his agave plantation against bandit attack, Frida Kahlo with her perfume bottle flask, Cuervo and Sauza bought out by international corporations, Señor Frog’s on a spring break Saturday night.

The Spanish initially built primitive mud stills to make agave wine, but if you nose around into the history of Tequila, you discover that distilled agave nectar didn’t really catch on until after 1565, when the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico. Spain’s real goal was to transport goods from its nascent colony in the Philippines back to the crown, and to that end Spanish officials devised a laborious route: ship from Manila to Acapulco, unload, cross Mexico by pack mule and ship out again at Veracruz to sail for Spain. Easier said than done. The route meant carving a mule trail through the jagged sierra (this became the famous Camino Real), as well as building immense galleons. (Incidentally, the galleons were built in Barra de Navidad, not far from where I drank the exemplary plastic jug of tequila.) When the flagship finally set sail from Barra de Navidad, this "China galleon" was the largest seafaring vessel of its time in the world. Their mission was perilous: carry a load of Mexican silver to the Philippines, trade the silver for luxury items from China, and then embark on the horrendous (three-month) return route to Mexico. Naturally, pirates took notice; over the years, the fleet drew fire from English and Dutch privateers, including Sir Frances Drake.

When China galleons docked at Acapulco, crews of Filipino sailors unloaded porcelain, silk, ivory, spices and lacquerware. The potters of the Mexican city of Puebla would take inspiration from the blue-and-white beauty of Chinese porcelain, Mexican jewelers would work the patterns in Chinese silk into their fine gold and silver filigree, and the Filipino sailors would change the culture of Mexico forever by bringing mangos, coconuts and portable stills.

The Filipino sailors who jumped ship to settle on the coast of Mexico hobnobbed with the common folk, sharing their delicious coconut brandy and its source — nifty portable stills. News traveled fast — all the way to the mountains of Nayarit, where it seems the Huichol Indians copied Filipino technology. They weren’t the only ones. Short on coconuts, inland Mexicans got creative with ingredients at hand. Agave, that mainstay of Mexican culture, was an obvious choice. With its smoky potency and lyrical burn, distilled agave wine was a hit. Within years, mezcal production boomed in the prime agave growing region in the mountains of Jalisco, and tavernas (taverns) sprang up to sell cuernitos (horns) of mezcal to the masses. In 1600, the Marquis of Altamira built the first big distillery near the town of Tequila in New Galicia (later Jalisco).

The 18th century saw the rise of Tequila’s Cuervo clan. The family started with a small taverna, but by 1880 residents of nearby Guadalajara were downing 10,000 barrels of Cuervo tequila a year. In 1891, the portly Francophile dictator Porfirio Diaz displayed his questionable taste by awarding Cuervo a gold medal for the excellence of its tequila. (Though to Diaz’s credit, this was a long time ago. It’s possible that Jose Cuervo was actually good back then.)

During the first 200 years of our story, the line between mezcal and tequila was blurry. In the beginning, the name tequila mezcal was applied to mezcal grown in the Tequila region, but as time passed tequila became a beverage unto itself, distinguished by location (Jalisco and a few surrounding regions), production (notably, the steaming of the agave hearts) and choice of plant (blue).

Which brings me to Don Cenobio Sauza, who is notable for two accomplishments: He personally defended his agave plantation against a hoard of bandits, and he singled out the blue agave as the variety of agave most suited for tequila production. Though the Mexican government wouldn’t officially define acceptable tequila ingredients until much later on, distillers in the Tequila region followed Sauza’s lead. And as the drink became more refined, its popularity grew. By 1906 8 million gallons of tequila were produced a year in Jalisco, at least according to official figures.

In Mexico, every war has spurred tequila production. Tequila sales rose during the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821) and undoubtedly cuernitos of tequila were tossed back on May 5, 1862, when Mexicans celebrated the country’s first major victory against Napoleon’s occupying troops. Mexicans really began identifying with tequila during and after the 1910 revolution, which saw the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz and a subsequent surge in national pride. Not only did Mexicans drink more tequila during and after the revolution, but the romantic tales of hard-partying revolutionaries that drifted across the border enhanced the drink’s romantic mystique in the United States. (Ironically, Pancho Villa, a man closely associated with tequila in the popular imagination, disapproved of drinking.)

Although Americans had got their first good dose of tequila during the Mexican-American war (in response, we thoughtfully stole half of Mexico), the beverage really achieved notoriety during Prohibition. The stream of smugglers carrying the precious cargo from Mexico to Texas was so formidable that U.S. troops patrolled the border, seizing wagons of tequila and her cousin sotol. But for every big-time operation, there were a hundred small-time equivalents. For example, in 1920, the El Paso Herald (leeringly) reported :

Maria Munoz, a young and rather pretty Mexican girl was arrested by federal officers Saturday, charged with smuggling liquor which had been concealed in her stocking. The liquor, a quart bottle of tequila, it is alleged was placed in the stocking, which was pinned to her waist and allowed to swing down into spacious bloomers.

Meanwhile, Mexicans drank their way through America’s dry years. Not everyone was happy about the state of affairs. As revolutionary governor of the state of Sonora, Elias Calles made drinking a capital offense. Gov. Calles actually went so far as to order the execution of at least one village drunk, but he was widely ignored by the citizenry. In 1919, the Evening Herald, a newspaper in dry Klamath Falls, Ore., wistfully reported that liquor in Sonora had never been cheaper or more plentiful. Even during the state-mandated destruction of 600 bottles of tequila, which took place in front of the governor’s mansion, locals brought mugs to the ceremony and scooped enough tequila out of the gutters to get "riotously drunk."

Sometime in the mid-20th century, the margarita was invented, and the Cuervo and Sauza families laughed all the way to the bank. A number of legends exist surrounding the drink, all of them reasonably plausible. One of the more widely spread stories is that Dallas socialite Margarita Sames invented the drink for jet-setting friends at her Acapulco vacation home on Christmas of 1948. But in "The Complete Book of Spirits," Anthony Dias Blue points out that a 1945 Jose Cuervo ad ran under the tag line: "Margarita: It’s more than just a girl’s name." I like this tag line. It eliminates a number of contenders from the margarita melee while making an important point. Over the years, the Mexican government has become increasingly protective of the tequila name. In 1974, the Mexican government declared the word "tequila" the intellectual property of Mexico, a move that makes it illegal for other countries to produce or sell anything labeled tequila. In addition to being made in Mexico, tequila must be aged in Mexico. Regulations for categorizing tequila (as silver, reposed, or añejo) are equally stringent. These days the country even has a private sector nonprofit organization called the Consejo Regulador de Tequila, which oversees all aspects of the industry, including monitoring agave growth, protecting peasant laborers, and fostering ancient tequila traditions.

Speaking of tequila traditions, if I can’t have mine from a plastic jug, I fall back on a recipe my friend Annie and I contrived while camped on a Jalisco beach years ago. Under the eaves of our palapa hut, we hit upon the perfect pastime to validate our absolute state of degenerate sloth: We’d write a book of drink recipes. After all, we had plenty of liquor and limes on hand. There was only one glitch. The only measuring device in camp was a half-cup. All the drinks we mixed that winter contained at least 4 ounces of liquor and our margaritas were no exception. Salud!

Note: I like to mix margaritas with a reposado (slightly aged) tequila because a tinge of smoke makes the drink more interesting. I realize the traditional margarita calls for triple sec, but I prefer this stripped-down version.

Margarita Tenacatita (Serves 2)

  • 8 ounces tequila (for a margarita, I recommend Cazadores reposado or Herradura)
  • 3 ounces fresh lime juice (key limes are best)
  • 3 teaspoons of cane sugar
  • Rock salt on a plate
  • Ice
  1. Before you start squeezing limes, put tequila and sugar in a glass and stir vigorously.
  2. Rub a lime over the rim of your glasses. Salt rims.
  3. Add ice to glasses.
  4. Pour margarita over ice and serve.
  • Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at The Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range where she works as a freelance writer and editor. More: Felisa Rogers
Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Mexican Drug War 2011 Update

Mexican Drug War 2011 Update

April 21, 2011 | 1214 GMT

Mexican Drug War 2011 Update



Editor’s Note: Since the publication of STRATFOR’s2010 annual Mexican cartel report, the fluid nature of the drug war in Mexico has prompted us to take an in-depth look at the situation more frequently. This is the first product of those interim assessments, which we will now make as needed, in addition to our annual year-end analyses and our weekly security memos.

In the first three months of 2011, overall violence across Mexico continued to rise. The drug cartels are fighting for control of lucrative ports of entry along the U.S. border and strategic choke points in the interior of Mexico — urban crossroads on both major and minor smuggling routes. These crossroads include cities like Ciudad Victoria, San Luis Potosi, Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Durango, Torreon, Saltillo and Chihuahua. Some of them are important because they straddle vital north-south routes running along the coastlines. Others have strategic value because they sit on major highways that serve as direct routes through the interior of the country, from various points on the Pacific coast to ports of entry on the Texas border. And along that border, the control of plazas that have border crossings is being hotly contested from Juarez to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico.

Mexican Drug War 2011 Update

(click here to enlarge image)

The Gulf cartel, still battling its former enforcer arm Los Zetas, is holding on to Matamoros, a vital Gulf asset. With the Sinaloa Federation’s help, the Gulf cartel has repelled Zeta offensives both at Matamoros and Reynosa but has not displayed the force necessary to push Los Zetas out of Monterrey. Los Zetas, suffering the loss of 11 mid- to upper-level leaders and plaza bosses, continue to fight their primary war with the Gulf cartel while training and assisting allied cartels in Juarez, Tijuana and Acapulco.

The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) cartel is managing to keep Sinaloa forces at bay in Juarez but has lost its outlying territories in Chihuahua state as well as its primary drug supply line from Chihuahua City. Sinaloa’s effective blockade of Juarez has begun to choke off VCF’s supply and revenue flow. VCF is not yet out of the game, but it is limping noticeably. Another cartel on the decline — a shadow of its former self — is the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO, aka the Tijuana cartel). AFO has very little territory left that it holds alone and is now subservient to the Sinaloa Federation, to which it pays for the right to access the California ports of entry.

The Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS) and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA), both of which comprise splinter factions of the former Beltran Leyva Organization, are battling each other for control of Acapulco’s seaport. CPS is the more successful of the two, with its territorial control stretching north along the Gulf of California coast into Sonora state, though smuggling corridors up the coastline are regularly disputed by the Sinaloa Federation.

After what seemed to be the sudden death of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) in January, it is now apparent that a portion of LFM of undetermined size has rebranded itself as the Knights Templar, which emerged on the scene in mid-March. Other members of LFM continue to operate under that name. This development is very new and it is not clear yet who the Knights Templar leaders are, how many are in the new group, what kind of relationship they have with their former brethren in LFM and what, if any, relationship either group has with the Sinaloa Federation. A great deal likely depends on the willingness of Sinaloa and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera to allow LFM or the Knights Templar to re-establish their former infrastructure and smuggling routes.

As for the Sinaloa Federation, it is now the regional hegemon in the western half of Mexico and is actively expanding its territory. Currently there are Sinaloa forces helping the Gulf cartel battle Los Zetas in the northeast, slowly strangling the VCF in Juarez, running the show in Tijuana and fighting for supremacy in Acapulco. Wherever there is a conflict in Mexico between or among a cartel’s current or former factions, you will find Sinaloa’s helpful hand. And in every case Sinaloa is gaining territory. While internal strife and external pressure from the Mexican military and federal law enforcement agencies have weakened all of the other cartels, the Sinaloa Federation has proved impervious to the turmoil — and it is growing.

In the next three to six months, STRATFOR expects Sinaloa to lead the pack in the fights for Acapulco and Durango. However, Sinaloa has so much going on around Mexico that Guzman may redeploy some of his fighters — from regions already solidified under his control, such as Tijuana — to Durango and Acapulco to facilitate quicker, more decisive victories there. STRATFOR anticipates an even greater level of violence in Juarez as Sinaloa’s chokehold tightens, and we expect to see a major push by Los Zetas to recover control of Reynosa, where the Gulf cartel will lose its hold if Sinaloa pulls fighters from there to fight elsewhere. Los Zetas are highly likely to hold onto Monterrey in the near term, absent a major government push or a massive effort by Gulf and Sinaloa, which is unlikely at this point but cannot be ruled out.

The CIDA may fade out completely in the next three to six months, with its remaining territory and assets likely split between the CPS, aided by Los Zetas, and Sinaloa. As for the Knights Templar, STRATFOR expects to see it pick up where LFM left off in December, though re-establishment of its methamphetamine production probably will be gradual.

Current Status of the Mexican Cartels
Los Zetas

Los Zetas have had setbacks over the last three months — reduced territory, captured or killed regional leaders, internal control issues — but the organization appears to be able to absorb such losses. Los Zetas have maintained control of their strongholds in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo as well as the key Gulf of Mexico port of Veracruz, despite the best efforts of the Gulf cartel and elements of the New Federation. STRATFOR sources indicate that the Gulf cartel maintains constant surveillance of all roads leading to Matamoros, making a Zeta move in that direction difficult at best and at this point unlikely. It is more likely that Los Zetas will make a concerted effort to retake Reynosa in the coming months.

Since the beginning of 2011, actions by the Mexican military and federal police have resulted in the loss of at least 11 mid- to upper-level Los Zetas leaders, including Flavio “El Amarillo” Mendez Santiago, one of the original founding members, captured by federal police in Oaxaca on Jan. 18. One of seven Zeta gunmen killed Jan. 25 by Mexican soldiers during a running gunbattle through the Monterrey metropolitan area was identified only as “Comandante Lino,” who is believed to have been the top Zeta leader in Nuevo Leon state.

STRATFOR has heard rumors of a split between Los Zetas leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano and No. 3 leader Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales. However, we have not been able to confirm this or determine if the attrition of secondary leaders was affected — or caused — by such a division.

One of the most significant events involving Los Zetas since December 2010 was the Feb. 15 attack against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The motivation for the attack remains unclear, but viewed against documented Zeta operational behaviors and priorities, it clearly was not consistent with the top leadership’s doctrine and past practices. There has been much speculation regarding the attackers’ motives, but a planned and sanctioned attack against U.S. officials would be certain to bring the full weight of the U.S. government onto the perpetrators, and that is not something the top Zeta leadership would want to invite. This suggests the possibility that lower-level regional leaders either lost control of their operational cells or actually condoned and/or ordered the attack.

Regarding the possibility of neglected control, the erosion of Zeta forces through battle, targeted assassination and capture has been high over the past year. There have been numerous indications that recent Zeta recruits have tended to be younger and less experienced than those who joined prior to 2010. The attrition in leadership has also resulted in leaders who are themselves younger and less experienced. Such a mix may be creating conditions in which young men equipped with vehicles and weapons but with little discipline or oversight are left to their own devices.

A number of mid-level Zeta leaders came from military and law enforcement backgrounds and had received some level of institutional training and education. But many of them likely do not grasp the gravity — or even know about — an incident 26 years ago, when the Guadalajara cartel kidnapped, tortured and killed Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In response, the U.S. government orchestrated the annihilation of the Guadalajara cartel in a massive offensive called Operation Leyenda. It is possible that certain midlevel Zetas, lacking knowledge or appreciation of that operation, may not be aware of the potential repercussions of an attack on known U.S. government personnel.

If that is the case, there may be a few sporadic attacks on U.S. government agents in the coming months. But unless such events go unanswered by U.S. agencies, thereby lending the cartels a sense of impunity, it is doubtful that more than a handful of such attacks will occur.

To some extent, out-of-control gunmen within Los Zetas are a self-solving problem. Rash actions by low-level Zetas can and do trigger the occasional harsh “house cleaning,” in which the transgressors, on the orders of top-level leaders, are either killed or betrayed to authorities to send a message to the rest of the organization. Either way, the internal problem weakens the cartel and reduces both its numbers and its organizational efficacy, and it is unlikely that the internal punishment of wayward Zetas protects the organization as a whole from the consequences of their actions.

Los Zetas’ current organizational dynamics suggest that we are likely to see more unsanctioned operations such as the ICE and Falcon Lake shootings. This obviously has implications for U.S. law enforcement personnel and innocent bystanders. Such operations also will continue to induce internal culling of the elements responsible for such attacks. In all likelihood, this internal pressure, when combined with external pressures brought against Los Zetas by their cartel rivals, the Mexican government and American authorities, will continue to take a heavy toll on the cartel. And as losses are replaced with younger and less-experienced operatives, ongoing violence and destabilization will likely erode Los Zetas’ power.

Gulf Cartel

Since late January, the Gulf cartel has been solidifying its hold on Matamoros. As both a northbound smuggling route into the United States and an inbound supply port for receiving waterborne shipments, Matamoros is vital to the Gulf cartel’s survival. The organization is not down for the count, but it continues to be weakened and dependent on its allies in the Sinaloa Federation to protect it from Los Zetas. With Los Zetas in control of the port of Veracruz, Matamoros serves as the cartel’s primary resupply point for Colombian cocaine, Central American arms shipments and other logistical operations. Certainly, Gulf cartel logistics are not constricted solely to that corner of Mexico, but seaport access enables large-volume resupply that minimizes the losses inherent in land routes through hostile areas.

Though Gulf cartel control encompasses Matamoros and Reynosa, both smuggling plazas with vital ports of entry on the border, the ownership of that territory has been contested. On Jan. 29, Los Zetas launched a sizable offensive that they had prepared in advance by placing resupply caches in and around Matamoros shortly after Antonio “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen was killed last November. Several weeks of heavy fighting flared up in Matamoros and to the south and west, as Zeta fighters hit Gulf cartel groups and Mexican military units took on both cartels. Smaller fights broke out along the border northwest to Nuevo Laredo as well as southward between Matamoros and Monterrey.

The fighting died down toward the end of February, and the Gulf cartel took the opportunity to ramp up revenue streams and restock. According to STRATFOR sources, cocaine seizures by U.S. law enforcement agencies rose steadily from mid-February to late March in the Rio Grande Valley portion of the south Texas border zone — a significant increase of high-value/low-volume contraband. To offset losses from the early February Zeta offensive, the Gulf cartel tried to bring in substantial revenue very quickly.

The upswing in cocaine smuggling corresponded with the lull in cartel battles and the need for quick cash. According to a Jan. 11 U.S. Department of Justice report on illicit drug prices, wholesale cocaine prices in the area were approximately $25,000 per kilogram (more than $11,000 per pound) versus $440 to $660 per kilogram for marijuana. There is no way to calculate the ratio of contraband seized to the total contraband smuggled in any given area at any given time, but various STRATFOR sources have made conservative estimates of 1:10 to 1:12 (seized to total smuggled). Since approximately 348 kilograms (767 pounds) of cocaine were seized between the last week of February and April 1, a reasonable extrapolation of the expected revenues — after the loss of the seized cocaine — would be $87 million.

The Gulf cartel leadership does not appear to have taken as big a loss as the Los Zetas leadership did in the first quarter. On March 4, however, authorities arrested Gustavo “El 85” Arteaga Zaleta and Pablo Jesus “El Enano” Arteaga Zaleta in Tampico, Tamaulipas. The brothers were wanted on charges of kidnapping, extortion, and arms and drug trafficking for the Gulf cartel in the states of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi. Secretariat of Public Security intelligence reports indicate that Gustavo Arteaga Zaleta is a former municipal policeman from Ciudad Madero, Tamaulipas, and was the “jefe de plaza” (plaza boss) in El Ebano, San Luis Potosi.

The loss of two Gulf cartel leaders over the past few months does not appear to have adversely affected the organization, though as a whole the cartel continues to be stretched thin. With federal forces occasionally entering the fray and Los Zetas seeking any weaknesses to exploit, the Gulf cartel is engaged in a large, bloody game of “whack-a-mole” in which its dual opponents further stretch its resources — augmented though it may be by Sinaloa elements.

While the Gulf cartel has held its territory and successfully repelled a Zeta offensive this past quarter, it has not been able to wrest Monterrey, Veracruz or Nuevo Laredo away from Zeta control. In northeast Mexico, the battle lines have not shifted, there are no clear winners and the violence will continue for the foreseeable future.

Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation remains the largest and most cohesive of the Mexican cartels. Under the leadership of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, Sinaloa has been steadily making inroads into the territories of other cartels, friend and foe alike. This expansion has been seen in Durango, Guerrero (specifically Acapulco and its vital seaport) and Michoacan states as well as Mexico City. Because it has remained a cohesive organization and maintained widely diversified revenue streams — from narcotics to avocados — the Sinaloa Federation stands to benefit most from the chaos across Mexico.

Only two significant members of the Sinaloa leadership were captured during the first quarter of 2011. The first was Cesar “El Placas” Villagran Salazar, arrested by army troops on Feb. 12. Villagran Salazar is alleged to be a key operator for Guzman in northern Sonora and coordinator of Sinaloa drug shipments for distribution across the border into Arizona. The second, on March 18, was Victor Manuel “El Senor” Felix, who is presumed to be a relative and confidante of Guzman and runs one of the cartel’s financial networks.

According to a STRATFOR source, the Mexican government’s current priority is getting the violence under control, not eliminating the cartels. It is a pragmatic approach. While some of the cartels may be breaking up or in the process of being absorbed, it is not possible at this point to eliminate them all — or to stop the trafficking of narcotics. Systemic corruption at all levels of government, well-entrenched for many years, turns a blind eye to cartel activities at best and enables them at worst. Apparently, the Mexican government has decided that the best course of action in this environment is to wage a war of attrition, taking out the low-hanging fruit and letting Sinaloa do the rest.

Extreme levels of violence are not in the best interests of cartels, whose primary goal is to make money. When violence goes up, revenue goes down. As the largest and most widespread Mexican cartel — incapable of being eliminated in the current environment — the Sinaloa Federation likely will continue to be relatively impervious to government efforts. It also is the organization most likely to assume the dominant position in the cartel landscape, which would enable it ultimately to impose a forced reduction in the cartel violence. Sinaloa could use its dominance to keep weaker groups in line, which would suit the government’s purposes.

As Sinaloa has steadily gained influence and territory over the past several years, its competition has been fragmenting. The destabilization that began in 2006 with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s anti-cartel campaign thoroughly upset the cartel equilibrium and created power vacuums. With the possible exception of Los Zetas, the fragmentation and power vacuums have weakened or destroyed cartels while Sinaloa has either been unaffected or strengthened as the primary beneficiary. Even those elements within the Sinaloa Federation that were neutralized — the Beltran Leyva brothers and Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel Villarreal — were elements that posed a potential challenge to the leadership of Sinaloa head Guzman.

In the case of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), once a part of the Sinaloa Federation, the remaining Beltran Leyva brother Hector (see section on Cartel Pacifico Sur below) believes that Guzman betrayed his brothers and used the government to remove a potential challenger — the BLO. This was borne out by events in the first quarter of 2011, when Sinaloa expanded into the territories of cartels that were fragmented or floundering such as its New Federation allies La Familia Michoacana (LFM) and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA). “Divide and conquer” works, even when a third party causes the fragmentation, and Guzman knows this well.

Knights Templar

As was discussed in STRATFOR’s 2010 annual cartel report, the death of Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno Gonzalez in a shootout with federal authorities on Dec. 9, 2010, was a blow to LFM. Moreno was a charismatic and compelling leader, around whom grew a curious blend of religious cult, merciless killing machine and highly specialized drug-trafficking organization. Without Moreno’s centrally focused leadership, the bands of LFM killers fractured and seemed to engage in directionless violence in late December and into January.

LFM continued to devolve with the loss of its methamphetamine labs to government takedowns (and probably efforts by other cartels as well). As with the territorial grabs in other parts of Mexico, LFM’s leaderless cells did not hold onto the bulk of the cartel’s smuggling routes but likely lost them to regional hegemon Sinaloa. At this point in the degeneration of the organization, it is likely that the faithful core of Moreno’s followers saw the need to reorganize or rebrand the group in order to reunify its scattered elements. Such an effort at organizational self-preservation would require a particular sort of leader to fill the void left by Moreno’s death.

As with most charismatic pseudo-religious organizations and their inherent strongman leadership, there was a fiercely loyal cadre of lieutenants who surrounded Moreno. From that group alone will be found a successor who will be followed, since most of the LFM rank and file will align themselves only with someone who has complete faith in Moreno’s teachings. In the chaos of last December, following Moreno’s death, the two top members of his inner circle were rumored to have fled the country. STRATFOR has been unable to confirm the rumor (or, if it is true, whether they have returned), but the two — Servando “La Tuta” Gomez Martinez and Jose Jesus “El Chango” Mendez Vargas — are the prime candidates to replace Moreno and bring the elements of LFM back together. They fit the mold for being the most likely to succeed in the reconstitution and rebranding of the group.

LFM announced its dissolution in January. Authorities and analysts dismissed the announcement and waited to see what evolved. The wait was not very long. On March 17, banners appeared in multiple cities and villages in Michoacan that proclaimed the presence of a previously unknown group — Los Caballeros Templar, aka the Knights Templar.

The new name may have triggered a few chuckles in some agencies — and objections from members of the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, which traces its origins to the original Knights Templar, an order of Christian knights formed to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the First Crusade. There is some parallel to the religion-centric LFM, with its stated goals of protecting the people of Michoacan from criminal elements, including corrupt government officials.

Banners announcing the emergence of the Knights Templar in Michoacan read: “To the people of Michoacan, we inform you that starting today we will be carrying out here the altruistic activities previously realized by La Familia Michoacana. We will be at the service of the people of Michoacan to attend to any situation that threatens the safety of Michoacanos. Our commitment is to: keep order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, extortion; and protect the state from possible (interventions) by rival organizations. — The Knights Templar.”

The Knights Templar banners bore the same type of message and tone as previous LFM banners, which suggests that the activities of the Knights Templar in the next few months will likely be consistent with documented LFM activities. This development is recent, and information regarding the composition of the group, its leadership and its relations with remnant LFM cells and the Sinaloa Federation is very sparse. STRATFOR will continue to monitor events in Michoacan over the next quarter, paying particular attention to the emergence of the Knights Templar leadership and the reconstitution of LFM alliances and business, enforcement and smuggling operations. It is too soon to know whether the former LFM partnership with the Sinaloa Federation will be reinstituted.

Cartel Pacifico Sur

The groups that evolved from the factions of the BLO no longer are recognizable as such. The BLO split into two separate groups, with an unknown number of BLO operatives electing to return to the Sinaloa Federation rather than join either of the two new drug-trafficking organizations.

The first of these two independent groups, Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS), centers around Hector Beltran Leyva and is allied with Los Zetas. During the first quarter of 2011, CPS demonstrated an addition to its skill set: the use of an improvised explosive device (IED) placed in a car in Tula, Hidalgo state, with an anonymous call to local law enforcement to lure victims to the booby trap. The small device detonated on Jan. 22 when one of the vehicle’s doors was opened, injuring four police officers.

Though no one claimed responsibility for the IED, a connection can be made that suggests CPS involvement. Last summer, STRATFOR discussed the use of an IED in a car in Juarezin which the first responders were targeted and killed following an anonymous call regarding a wounded police officer. That IED is believed to have been detonated by members of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes cartel (VCF, aka the Juarez cartel). In both the Juarez and Tula bombings, the devices used were small, composed of industrial hydrogel explosives and placed in vehicles to which local police were lured by some ruse.

The common denominator is likely Los Zetas. Though the cities of Juarez and Tula are about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) apart, and the Juarez cartel and CPS do not share assets, both organizations are allied with Los Zetas — and Los Zetas have members with military demolitions training. In the coming months, STRATFOR will be watching for any other indicators that this connection has led to other permutations in CPS tactics previously not associated with the BLO.

Independent Cartel of Acapulco

The second group that broke off from the BLO is the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (Cartel Independiente de Acapulco, or CIDA). This group is still evolving and information about it remains rather muddled. At this point, STRATFOR has identified CIDA as a large part of the BLO faction loyal to Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal. Since Valdez Villarreal was arrested in September 2010, his faction has apparently become somewhat marginalized. Some CIDA members came from La Barbie’s faction, some did not. There are also some former LFM elements in the CIDA as well as a handful of miscellaneous Acapulco street thugs and miscreants. There continues to be sporadic violence attributable to, or claimed by, the CIDA, but there is mounting evidence that the organization is fading from the picture in some areas.

That said, the CIDA is not giving up without a fight. STRATFOR sources recently indicated that the group is locked in a battle with CPS for control of the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos state. Sources say CPS gunmen currently control the east side of Cuernavaca and CIDA operatives control the city’s west side. Particularly dangerous areas are the Jiutepec sector on the city’s southeast side and the Carolina neighborhood on the west side.

According to Mexican media reports, federal police arrested Benjamin “El Padrino” Flores Reyes, one of the suspected top CIDA leaders, on March 6 in Acapulco, Guerrero state. Flores Reyes reportedly controlled the distribution of drugs, managed the cartel’s lookout groups and is said to have reported directly to cartel chief Moises “El Koreano” Montero Alvarez.

The CIDA was aligned with LFM and the Sinaloa Federation, and until late last year it was most likely in control of the Acapulco plaza and seaport. The disbanded LFM, reincarnated into the Knights Templar, probably has not provided any help to the weakened CIDA, and Sinaloa has likely taken full advantage of the chaos and helped itself to the Acapulco plaza. STRATFOR has asked its sources which cartel controls the Acapulco seaport itself, and while conditions are sufficiently murky to prevent any definitive answers, the working hypothesis is that the port is also in the hands of Sinaloa.

Currently, the CIDA is at war with former ally Sinaloa, likely triggered by Guzman’s move to take CIDA territory after the arrest of Valdez Villarreal. The CIDA appears to be taking a beating on that front. During President Calderon’s visit to Acapulco last month, five dismembered bodies were found in front of a department store on Farallon Avenue in Acapulco. The discovery was made about an hour after Calderon opened the 36th Tourist Marketplace trade fair in the International Center of Acapulco. Pieces of two of the bodies were scattered on the ground near an abandoned SUV, and body parts from the other three were found in plastic bags inside the vehicle. Messages left at the scene said the victims were police officers killed by the Sinaloa Federation because they worked with the CIDA.

The outlook for the CIDA over the next three to six months is not promising. Unless something occurs to revitalize the group, such as a successful escape from prison by Valdez Villarreal, the CIDA may fade into obscurity within the year. Certainly the next three months will be telling.

Arellano Felix Organization

Fernando “El Ingeniero” Sanchez Arellano, nephew of the founding Arellano Felix brothers, is still in control of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO, aka the Tijuana cartel), though the group is only a shadow of its former self. Little changed in the cartel’s condition in the first quarter of 2011 from how it was described in the 2010 annual cartel report. Sinaloa’s “partnership agreement” with the AFO has relegated the once-mighty Tijuana cartel to vassal status, with the bulk of its former territory and all of its smuggling avenues across the border now controlled by the Sinaloa Federation. The AFO now pays Sinaloa for access to its former territory.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization

The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization (VCF, aka the Juarez cartel) is holding on. Though STRATFOR has previously reported that the VCF was hemmed in on all sides by the Sinaloa cartel, and essentially confined to the downtown area of Ciudad Juarez, recent reports from STRATFOR sources indicate that this is not quite the case. The VCF retains control of the plaza and the border crossings in Juarez, from the Paso Del Norte port of entry on the northwest side to the Ysleta port of entry on the west side of town. However, the VCF’s territory is significantly diminished to the extent that it no longer controls the city of Chihuahua, which is now held by Sinaloa, as is the rest of Chihuahua state and the border zone on both sides of Juarez/El Paso.

As we have discussed in previous cartel reports, VCF second-in-command Vicente Carrillo Leyva has been in Mexican federal custody since his arrest in Mexico City in 2009. He is the son of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, founder of the cartel, and nephew of the current leader (and cartel namesake) Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. On March 15, Carrillo Leyva was formally charged with money laundering, which diminishes the possibility of his eventual release. Given how long he has been detained and the foibles of the Mexican legal system, Carrillo Leyva may yet be released, but it seems doubtful at present.

In the absence of Carrillo Leyva, his right-hand man, Juan “El JL” Luis Ledezma, has been acting as the No. 2 in the organization, running the cartel’s operations and those of its enforcement arm, La Linea. But one of the other high-ranking VCF leaders has been taken out of the mix. On Feb. 22, Luis Humberto “El Condor” Peralta Hernandez was killed during a gunbattle with federal police in Chihuahua City, which removed the leader of the network holding open the cartel’s supply lines. As it stands now, STRATFOR sources indicate that most of the contraband seized by law enforcement on the U.S. side of the border with Chihuahua state is owned by Sinaloa, not the VCF, though the percentage remains unclear.

The VCF is surrounded by Sinaloa-held territory. Barring an unlikely reversal of Sinaloa’s fortunes, such as a massive operation by Los Zetas/VCF with all their allied gangs that successfully routs Sinaloa, the VCF is facing slow strangulation as its supply lines close and its revenue streams dry up. This will not happen overnight or even within the next three months, but as the noose tightens we can expect violence in Juarez to skyrocket beyond its current record-breaking level because the VCF will not go quietly.

In the short term, the inability to move narcotics will cause the VCF to continue to seek operational funding through other means, such as kidnapping, extortion, alien smuggling and cargo theft. We have seen indications of that with a couple of recent nightclub shootings that are thought to have been associated with VCF extortion rackets. As hard as it might be to imagine, the violence in Juarez may actually get worse.


Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Five Safest Places in Mexico for Travelers

Five safest places in Mexico for travelers

Christine Delsol

The last Mexico Mix column looked at why Mexico’s drug-related violence has recently spilled into tourist destinations. This time, we’ll look at why that shouldn’t stop you from traveling to Mexico.

No, we’re not recommending a holiday in beautiful downtown Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, or a romantic getaway in Tecalitlán, Jalisco. Even I admit that when I had to fly into Acapulco and drive across the city on my last trip to Mexico, I was just as happy not to be lingering there.

But it’s still true that drug gangs are not targeting tourists now any more than they ever were. And even if the barrage of headlines makes it sound as if the entire country were in flames, the violence that feeds Mexico’s death toll takes place primarily in just nine of 31 states — mainly along the U.S. border where the smuggling takes place and in places where marijuana and heroin are produced.

The concept hasn’t changed: Stay away from the trouble spots and exhibit some common sense, and you’re more likely to perish in a tequila-fueled Jet Ski mishap than at a homicidal drug trafficker’s hands. What makes this concept more complicated today is that you can no longer rely on the common wisdom about sticking with established tourist destinations.

Until this year, the public had to rely on media tallies of drug-related killings or on sporadic and often confusing numbers compiled by various government agencies. In January, the Mexican government made the task easier by releasing a comprehensive official database of drug-related deaths — including gang members, police, soldiers and bystanders — each year from the beginning of Calderón’s term in December 2006 through the end of 2010. In addition to the alarming numbers in those nine states — ranging from 40 (in Michoacán) to 297.5 (in Chihuahua) deaths per 100,000 people — it shows that modest homicide rates prevail in much of the country.

Read more:

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Boca de Iguanas Journal April 5, 2011

Don Juan de Boca, Boca de Iguanas Journal written by Warren and posted by Susan

Yesterday was a sad day for us at Boca de Iguanas.  Panchita, our 20 ft. crocodile was taken away. They said she might be a danger to children.  She usually does not eat people, just dogs.  We have seen her eat dogs.  It is like the Discovery channel when the croc comes shooting out of the water with teeth gaping and taking hold of the poor animals head and dragging it into the water.  Then the death roll. Not just once but over a dozen times in celebration.  It is a horrific site and heart breaking to see the human family scream in shock, fear. Not pretty and the sounds come to you at night.

Then everyone leaves and Panchita parades up and down the mangrove proudly displaying her prey.  This is when we are happy for Panchita. It will take her several day to devour the unfortunate dog and then she will lay in the sun for about a week.  She is over 3 ft across and has only one eye.

When several dogs over a month fell to Panchitas tricks, I  decided make a sign.  It helped a lot. That dog next to me is Kurt.  He stays away from the Mangrove.

Sometimes Panchita would leave the Mangrove and swim into the ocean.  She would always return in a few days. We were always on alert while she was gone.

Well she IS gone now.  It took 10 men to capture and load her onto a flat bed truck, tie her down with bungee cords.  She still hung over the end. They took her to La Manzanilla because she is too dangerous here. Unfortunatey I did not have my camera. The locals here say that she will return.

Junior, Panchita’s son is still here.  He is only about 16 ft. long.  Not a big menace to people.  For some reason North American Caimans don’t attack people.  Mexicans cautiously tease them.  I have never seen Panchita get mad, she just swims away.  She likes dogfood.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Warren’s Cortesia Lecture

Friday, March 4, 2011 by Judy

"La Cortesía"

This is our fourth year in a row coming to San Miguel. Although it’s a pleasure to be here, we don’t consider ourselves typical "tourists" (people who travel to or visit a place for pleasure). Rather, the opportunity to stay for extended periods of time allows us to satisfy an anthropological  fascination with the Mexican peoples and their culture, past and present.

A re-enactment of  traditional native dress and dance.

Each year we attend a marvelous lecture, done by Warren Hardy (founder of the language school I attend) entitled "What Really Matters to Mexicans?" In that class he explores the history of Mexico as well as the United States, and reveals how that history has shaped who the Mexican people are today. And what we need to do, as visitors in their country, to gain their trust and respect so that we can live in harmony.
Mexico is a tribal nation that bears the wounds of it’s history. Although it’s civilization was destroyed by Cortes and the conquistadors in the 1500’s with a new race of people (Mestizos) created, and although half of it’s land (now known as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and part of Utah) was lost to the United States (1848), the deeply ingrained spirituality of this indigenous people has enabled them to hang on to their souls and emerge as a gentle, dignified race, proud of their country, and who they are.

Un hombre in traditional colorful Mexican attire

The term "La Cortesia" was coined during Mexico’s Humanist Movement in 1847 when some of the basic courtesies of Spain, along with the core values of respect and dignity that the Mexicans embraced as a people, began to be institutionalized. It was, and continues to be, the job of the mother to teach these courtesies to her children. To this day, if a person does not adhere to the core values of "La Cortesia", he or she is considered "mal educado" (poorly educated). This is a blemish on the mother.  And because family is so important to Mexicans, a bad reflection on the mother is avoided at all costs.

A typical Mexican family, enjoying one another’s company in

El Jardin, the beautiful park in the center of town.

Rick and I have learned that, as visitors in their country, being aware of and using the basic tools in "La Cortesia" is a way of connecting with the Mexcian people. Extending dignity through these simple courtesies lets them know, at some level, that we’re aware of their history and that we respect their core values. We have used two of these tools with great results, and I would like to share them with you in this essay.
1) Formal Greetings of "Buenos Días", "Buenas Tardes" and "Buenas Noches"
The simple acknowledgement of another person as you enter their space by using one of the above greetings (depending on the time of day) goes a long way. And adding a title (such as Señor or Señora) to the greeting not only gets a response from the recipient, but usually a smile. Remember the political novel written in 1958, "The Ugly American"?  Who wants to be burdened with such a label while visiting another country? The "formal greeting" is an easy way to establish equality while imparting a sense of dignity that goes both ways, thus eliminating any negative perceptions that might exist. And take our word for it – it works like a charm. Whether it’s with a shopkeeper, a waitperson, or just someone we pass on the street, "Buenos días" is a sincere way of connecting – from the heart.
2) Requesting Space – "Con Permiso"
The sidewalks of San Miguel are narrow, and can be difficult to traverse. Often the person in front of me is walking slowly; other times two or more people are engaged in conversation, taking up the space that I need to pass through. Of course it’s an option to move onto the street (as long as it’s not busy and/or there are no cars parked alongside). But knowing about the simple phrase "con permiso", and using it when wanting to get by, is akin to having the key to a locked door. Although it’s been amazing to see how positively people respond to those words, I used to wonder what the person was saying as they momentarily paused and I passed. Their quiet tone always implied politeness and respect (which, I assumed, ruled out rude labels and swear words), and I naturally responded with "gracias". But just yesterday I learned from an American, fluent in Spanish, that the response to "con permiso" is "propía", which means "it’s yours". Now how lovely is that? What a graceful, dignified interaction, in a situation that could easily be interpreted as "ugly American-ish" if not done properly. "Muchas gracias" to Warren Hardy for this invaluable cultural tip.


I feel blessed to have the opportunity to spend a significant time in Mexico each winter. I cherish the warmth,  I rejoice in my advances while studying the language, and I really like meeting other adventurers who appreciate what San Miguel has to offer. But the frosting on the cake is that each year I’m able to go deeper in my understanding of the lifestyle and culture of a truly soft and lovely race of people. I’ve obviously discovered an anthropological interest that I never even realized I had.  Now that’s cool!!!

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

A Reality Check on Mexico

First: A reality check on Mexico
Mexico is in a unique position to reap many of the benefits of the decline of the US economy. In order to not violate NAFTA and other agreements the U.S.A. cannot use direct protectionism, so it is content to allow the media to play this protectionist role. The U.S. media – over the last year – has portrayed Mexico as being on the brink of economic collapse and civil war. The Mexican people are either beheaded, kidnapped, poor, corrupt, or narco-traffickers. The American news media was particularly aggressive in the weeks leading up to spring break. The main reason for this is money. During that two-week period, over 120,000 young American citizens poured into Mexico and left behind hundreds of millions of dollars.

Let’s look at the reality of the massive drug and corruption problem, kidnappings, murders and money. The U.S. Secretary of State Clinton was clear in her honest assessment of the problem. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent the weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians,” Clinton said. The other large illegal business that is smuggled into the U.S.A. that no one likes to talk about is Human Traffic for prostitution. This “business” is globally now competing with drugs in terms of profits.

It is critical to understand, however that the horrific violence in Mexico is over 95% confined to the three transshipping cities for these two businesses, Tijuana, Nogales, and Juarez. The Mexican government is so serious about fighting this, that they have committed over 30,000 soldiers to these borders towns. There was a thoughtful article written by a professor at the University of Juarez. He was reminded of the Prohibition years in the U.S.A. and compared Juarez to Chicago when Al Capone was conducting his reign of terror capped off with The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. During these years, just like Juarez today, 99% of the citizens went about their daily lives and attended classes, went to the movies, restaurants, and parks.
Is there corruption in Mexico? YES !!! Is there an equal amount of corruption related to this business in the U.S.A.? YES !!!. When you have a pair of illegal businesses that generate over $300,000,000,000 in sales you will find massive corruption. Make no mistake about the Mexican Drug Cartel; these “businessmen” are 100 times more sophisticated than the bumbling bootleggers during Prohibition. They form profitable alliances all over the U.S.A. They do cost benefit analysis of their business much better than the US automobile industry. They have found over the years that the cost of bribing U.S. and Mexican Border Guards and the transportation costs of moving marijuana from Sinaloa to California have cut significantly into profits. That is why over the past 5-7 years they have been growing marijuana in State and Federal Parks and BLM land all across America. From a business standpoint, this is a tremendous cost savings on several levels. Let’s look at California as an example as one of the largest consumers. When you have $14.2 billion of Marijuana grown and consumed in one state, there is savings on transportation, less loss of product due to confiscation and an overall reduction cost of bribery with law enforcement and parks service people. Another great savings is the benefit to their employees. The penalties in Mexico for growing range from 5-15 years. The penalties in California, on average are 18 months, and out in 8 months. The same economic principles are now being applied to the methamphetamine factories.

FOX News continues to scare people with its focus on kidnapping. There are kidnappings in Mexico. The concentration of kidnappings has been in Mexico City, among the very rich and the three aforementioned border Cities. With the exception of Mexico City, the number one city for kidnappings among NAFTA countries is Phoenix, Arizona with over 359 in 2008. The Phoenix Police estimate that twice that number of kidnappings goes unreported, because like Mexico 99% of these crimes were directly related to drug and human traffic. Phoenix, unfortunately, is geographically profitable transshipping location. Mexicans, just like 99% of U.S. Citizens during prohibition, go about their daily lives all over the country. They get up, go to school or work and live their lives untouched by the border town violence.
These same protectionist news sources have misled the public as to the real danger from the swine flu in Mexico and temporary devastated the tourism business. As of May 27 2009 there have been 87 deaths in Mexico from the swine flu. During those same five months there have been 36 murdered school children in Chicago. By their logic, if 87 deaths from the swine flu in Mexico warrants canceling flights and cruise ships to Mexico, then close all roads and highways in the USA because of record 43,359 automobile related deaths in the USA in 2008.

What is just getting underway is what many are calling the “Largest southern migration to Mexico of people and real estate assets since the Civil War” A significant percentage of the Baby Boomers have been doing the research and are making the life changing decision to move out of the U.S.A. The number one retirement destination in the world is Mexico. There are already over 2,000,000 US and Canadian property owners in Mexico. The most conservative number of American and Canadian Baby Boomers who are on their way to owning property in Mexico for full or part time living in the next 15 years is over 6,000,000. Do the math on 6,000,000 people buying a $300,000 house or condo and you will understand why the U.S. Government is trying to tax this massive shift of money to Mexico through H.R. 3056. The U.S. government calls this “The Tax Collection Responsibility Act of 2007”. Those who will have to pay it are calling this the EXIT TAX.
Mexico: A better economic choice than China
Another large exodus from the U.S.A is high paying skilled jobs. The job shift in automobile sector, both car and parts manufacturing, is already known by most investors. In the last few months as John Deere and Caterpillar have been laying off thousands of workers in the U.S.A., and hiring equal numbers in Mexico. The most recent industry that is making the shift is the aerospace manufacturers. In the city of Zacatecas there is currently a $210 million aerospace facility being built. With the 11 U.S. companies moving there, it is estimated to provide over 200,000 new high paying jobs in the coming years. One of the main factors for the shift in job south to Mexico instead of China is realistic analysis of total production, labor and delivery costs. While the labor costs in China are 40% less on average, the overall transportation costs and inherent risks of a long distance supply chain, and quality control issues, gives Mexico a distinct financial advantage.
Mexico’s real economic future
Mexico has avoided completely the subprime problem that has devastated the U.S. banking industry. The Mexican banks are healthy and profitable. Mexico has a growing and very healthy middle and upper middle class. The very recent introduction of residential financing has Mexico in a unique position of having over 90% of current homeowners owning their house outright. U.S. banks are competing for the Mexican, Canadian and American cross border loan business. It is and will continue to be a very safe and very profitable business. These same banks that were loaning in a reckless manner have learned their lesson and are loaning here the old fashioned way. They require a minimum of a 680 credit score, 30% down payment, and verifiable income that can support the loan. In most areas of Mexico where Baby Boomers are moving to, with the exception of Puerto Penasco (which did not have a national and international base of buyers), there is no real estate bubble.. The higher end markets ($2-20 million) in many of these destinations are going through a modest correction. The Baby Boomers market here is between $200,000 and $600,000. With the continuing demand inside the Bay of Banderas, that price point, in the coming years, will disappear. This is the reason the Mexican government is spending billions of dollars on more infrastructure north along the coast all the way up to Mazatlan.

The other major area where America has become overpriced is in the field of health care. This massive shift of revenues is estimated to add 5-7% to Mexico’s GDP. The name for this “business” is Medical Tourism. The two biggest competitors for Mexico were Thailand and India. Thailand and India’s biggest drawback is geography. Also recent events, Thailand’s inability to keep a government in place and the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, have helped Mexico capture close to half of this growth industry. In Mexico today there are over 56 world class hospitals being built to keep up with this business.
Mexico is currently sitting on a cash surplus and an almost balanced budget. Most Americans have never heard of Carlos Slim until he loaned the New York Times $250 million. After that it became clear to many investors around the world what Mexicans already knew: that Mexico had been able to avoid the worst of the U.S. economic devastation. Mexico’s resilience is to be admired. When the U.S. Federal Reserve granted a $30 billion loan to each of Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, and Brazil, Mexico reinvested the money in Treasury bonds in an account in New York City.
According to oil traders, Mexico’s Pemex wisely as the price of oil shot to $147 a barrel put in place an investment strategy that hinged on oil trading in the range of $38-$60 a barrel. Since the beginning of 2009 Mexico has been collecting revenues on hedged positions that give them $90-$110 per barrel today. Mexico’s recent and under reported oil discovery in the Palaeo Channels of Chicontepec has placed it third in the world for oil reserves, right behind Canada and Saudi Arabia.
The following is a quote from Rosalind Wilson, President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce on March 19, 2009. “The strength of the Mexican economic system makes the country a favorite destination for Canadian investment”.
The answer is simple and old fashioned: SUPPLY AND DEMAND.
The area of Puerto Vallarta/Riviera Nayarit inside the Bay of Banderas is an investor’s dream. This area has the comprehensive infrastructure in place, world class hospitals and dental care, natural investment protection from the Sierra Madre Mountains, endless future water supply, low to nonexistent crime, international airport, and limited supply inside the Bay, first class private bilingual schools and higher than average appreciation potential. Like many areas in Mexico there is large demand for full and part time retirement living and a lot of construction underway to meet this demand. Pre construction of course is where the best bargains are available.
I would offer a word of caution for investors in Mexico. Do not be seduced by the endless natural beauty that is everywhere, both inland in colonial towns and along thousands of miles of beach. Apply conservative medium and long term investment strategies without emotion. The demand for full and part time living by American and Canadian Baby Boomers is evident throughout the country. The top two choice locations are ocean front, and ocean view. The third overall choice, which is less expensive, is inland in one of the many beautiful colonial towns or small cities.
Mexico, with the world’s 13th largest GDP, is no longer a “Third World Country”, but rather a fast growing, economically secure state, as the most recent five-year history of its financial markets when compared to the U.S.A.’s financial markets suggests.
DOW JONES AVERAGES MAY 2004 10,200 MAY 2009 8,200 20% LOSS IN 5 YEARS
MEXICAN BOLSA MAY 2004 10,000 MAY 2009 23,000 130% GAIN IN 5 YEARS

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Learn Spanish. Combat Dementia.

by: Sarah Wildman | from: AARP VIVA | February 23, 2011

Using Language to Combat Dementia

The mental agility you need to be bilingual can keep the brain working better, for longer

Bilingualism may be the best weapon in our arsenal against mind decay.
That would come as a surprise to educators from the early 20th century through the 1950s, who pushed immigrant children to abandon their parents’ language. Two languages, it was said, would confuse kids and even divide patriotic loyalties. By the 1960s, researchers reversed course, revealing that bilingual children were actually scoring better on intelligence tests than their monolingual counterparts.

Bilingual and Alzheimers

— Yasu+Junko

Now a new study from the Rotman Research Institute and York University in Toronto, Ontario, goes even further. Using two languages interchangeably throughout life, researchers found, leads to a lifelong advantage in attention and concentration and actually delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 4.3 years. That’s especially welcome news for Hispanics, who have a 1.5 times greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s than non-Latino whites.
"Learning a language will not make you smarter, but being multilingual definitely gives you cognitive advantages," says Raúl Echevarria, cofounder of Spanish- and French-immersion preschools in the Washington, D.C., area. "People who are multilingual face greater ambiguity in day-to-day life; they have to decide which linguistic pool they will draw from. This requires them to really key in and be selective. That is a high-level cognitive skill."

Dr. Fergus I.M. Craik, who led the Canadian study, agrees. "Bilingual children have an advantage and disadvantage relative to monolingual children," he explains. "The disadvantage is that their vocabulary is slightly smaller in both languages. The advantages come from various tasks which require inhibiting relative information."

This ability to suppress one language while using another one nurtures mental agility, a skill researchers believe is far more useful than vocabulary lists. Mental agility is key in fighting against cognitive loss.

"The conclusion, which is really quite dramatic, is that speaking two languages does have this effect,’" says Craik, which seems to "buffer a person against the symptoms of dementia." And while chatting equally well in Spanish and English doesn’t actually stop deterioration, what happens for bilinguals  —  used to translating, each day, between ideas and concepts as well as words  —  is that "parts of the brain are fitter and better able to compensate for losses in other parts." And that keeps the brain working better, for longer.

Thinking about learning a second language later in life? Craik says that it may have some effect in fighting cognitive decline but to a lesser degree — similar to the effects of other taxing mental activities.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

The Tire Iron and the Tamale


New York Times

Published: March 4, 2011
  • During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

Justin Horner is a graphic designer living in Portland, Ore. This essay was adapted from a message-board posting on

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment