Guadalajara takes stock after deadly nightclub attack

Monday, February 14 was Love and Friendship Day in Mexico but much of the talk in Guadalajara workplaces centered on the weekend’s brutal attack outside a prominent nightclub that left six people dead and 37 injured. “It certainly will make me think twice about going into some bars and clubs,” said Veronica Arce, a waitress at a fast food outlet, two days after an incident that made headlines around the world.

Situated just meters from the Minerva statue – one of Guadalajara’s most famous landmarks – and a few doors from the plush Fiesta Americana hotel, the Butter Club is frequented by young, middle-class Tapatios. At around 4 a.m. on Saturday, as patrons were leaving the club, gunmen in a Grand Cherokee and a taxi drew up outside and sprayed the bar with bullets. At least one grenade was thrown in the entrance of the club.

Five of the dead were foreigners. A state government official said one, a 39-year-old Colombian identified as John Jairo Cruz Romero, had been arrested in Monterrey in 2004 accused of belonging to a gang dedicated to cloning bank cards.

Also among the dead were three Venezuelans: a woman named Yanina Suarez (aged between 25 and 30 years old), who was four months pregnant; 26-year-old Monica Zulay Gomez Gouveia, who was visiting the city; a 43-year-old man identified as Ali Humberto Montañez Porras and another young woman, believed to be Venezuelan, who has, as of press time, not been identified.

Relatives also identified the body of Faustino Zúñiga Ramírez, 37, a Mexican who worked as an itinerant flower seller in city restaurants and bars.

Of the 37 injured, eleven were Venezuelans, one Colombian and one Nicaraguan.

Police said all of the deceased, apart from Zuñiga, had gone to the bar after attending a concert given by Wisin and Yandel in the Auditorio Telmex.

Police units arrived at the scene within minutes of the attack but were unable to apprehend the suspects.

Witnesses said the gunmen fired AK47 assault rifles indiscriminately at the crowd milling around the entrance to the club before throwing a grenade and fleeing.

“I saw some really ugly things outside the club,” said Jorge Castañeda, a DJ at the Butter Club. “Thank God I’m alright.”

On Saturday, state attorney general Tomas Coronado said the massacre stemmed from a heated discussion earlier in the evening between two “private” groups inside the club.  One group was asked to leave by nightclub security staff but returned later to carry out the 4 a.m. attack, he said.

Speaking on Monday, Jalisco Government Secretary General Fernando Guzman clarified Coronado’s comments, stressing that “people linked to organized crime were involved.”

A barrage of tweets and comments on Facebook had poured scorn on Coronado’s declaration that drug cartels played no role in the attack.

On Tuesday, Coronado discounted the theory that a fight inside the club could have caused the brutal retaliation later on.

“That version was one of several lines of investigation,” said Coronado.

Although authorities are still investigating the cause of the attack, it is becoming clear that two local cartels are engaged in a turf war in Guadalajara. Both have posted videos on You Tube accusing the other of sowing the seeds of fear in the population.  Balaclava-wearing gunmen in military fatigues from “La Resistencia” and the “Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion” (CJNG) flank the speakers, whose faces are also covered. The speakers make demands on the state government and read out the names of rivals on their hit lists.

Two identical banners (known as narco-messages) appeared on bridges in Guadalajara in the early hours of Sunday, both apparently put there by the CJNG.

“The CJNG won’t rest until Jalisco is free of despicable events like 12/2/11,” read the message.

A peace protest organized earlier last week was given added impetus by the events of Saturday morning. On reaching the Minerva fountain, just a short distance from Butter Club, around 1,500 people formed a circle and participated in a pre-Hispanic ritual. The protest dissolved after a rendition of the Mexican national anthem. The local Chivas soccer team used an anti-violence theme in their seasonal squad photo shoot. Players wore white shirts, some bearing letters, which spelled out “Chivas against violence.”

According to local Spanish-language newspaper articles, organized criminal gangs in the state of Jalisco have killed at least 70 people this year.

Nine people have died and more than 60 injured in incidents in bars and nightspots.

There have also been 11 narco-blockades, where youths hired by drug gangs commandeer buses or other vehicles and set fire to them, blocking streets. These incidents are intended to challenge the government’s pursuit of cartel leaders and create a climate of fear in the city.

Celina Padilla, a regular clubgoer, said she stopped going to nightspots a couple of months ago, when the violence in Guadalajara began to crank up.

“Many of my friends are doing the same although some say that the chances of something (bad) happening are slim,” said the 29 year old.

“It’s better to have get togethers in someone’s house instead of going to clubs,” said Paulo Curiel, who works for the Tlaquepaque municipal government.

Last week, the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara advised its citizens not to travel to the city airport after dark in the wake of two narco-blockades in the zone in recent weeks.

State and municipal government officials have criticized the move, inferring that such drastic public announcements play into the hands of the cartels, by creating even more psychosis.

Hundreds of foreigners are taking courses at universities in Guadalajara, although as yet no foreign school has recalled its students, as happened during the swine flu scare in 2009.

American Linda Bura, 22, told this newspaper that she had been advised by Mexicans friends not to go to the Butter Club when it was called Element because of a large narco presence.  The club has regularly changed names and the former owner was reportedly strangled to death in late January in a Guadalajara suburb.

In April 2004, Canadian exchange student Kristen Deyell and a Mexican man were shot dead outside a Zapopan nightclub.  According to security personnel, four men were bounced after fighting with someone Deyell met there. The men returned and ambushed Deyell’s party as the Canadian was leaving. No one has been convicted for the crime.

‘Motels’ boom in changing moral climate

Perhaps there is no better symbol of the gap that exists between different generations of Mexicans than the quantity of motels that have sprouted up in the Guadalajara metropolitan area in recent years. “An establishment that provides lodging for motorists in rooms usually having direct access to an open parking area,” is how an American or Canadian would understand a motel, but that needs to be put out of mind in the Mexican context.

Why would the Guadalajara metropolitan area have more than 70 such places?

The vast majority, although not all, of the motels in Guadalajara are used for activities that wouldn’t please Catholic parents clinging on to the hope that their little girls (less so boys) will be virgins until the night they wed.

Motels in the Guadalajara metro area used expressly for sexual encounters are freely licensed, often by politicians professing profoundly religious beliefs. 

“It’s where people go after the club, the after-party and even the after-after-party,” says “Alina,” 25, who didn’t want her real name published. “It’s not like I can take my boyfriend to my house and he also lives with his parents.”

What they do, according to Alina, is visit a motel approximately once a week.

“Visiting motels is very normal here,” she adds, although she would never tell her parents.

The young couple is aided in their secrecy by the nature of the motels. The majority are extremely private, accessed with a car and the monetary exchange involves no face-to-face contact with anyone. Condoms, viagra, bottles of booze, cigarettes and food will all be brought to rooms if requested. As with any business, motels are catering to their clientele and at upward of 250 pesos a stay, they aren’t cheap.

Nobody knows exactly who visits these motels due to how private they are. The common stereotype is young unmarried couples, homosexuals, extramarital couples, prostitutes and the boss and the secretary at lunch break, but there’s more.

“People even go in groups and just order drinks and party,” says Raul Cedillo, who is now married and doesn’t go to motels but cheerfully recounts the days when he did. “When there’s nowhere else to go it can be a good option.”

Business is obviously booming. Twenty or thirty years ago there were few motels in the metro area and the ones that operated were confined to highways on the city’s outskirts.

Universidad de Guadalajara social studies professor Maria Antonia Chavez Gutierrez says the rise of these “no-tell motels” is symptomatic of a societal shift in which younger generations are ditching the sexual norms of their parents.

“The religious trait of getting married, the woman being the housewife looking after the house is changing,” says Chavez. “There’s now a double moral in many young people in which they’ve constructed a home life that obeys their parents’ religiosity and a separate reality in which they explore their sexuality.”

The motel business has been the benefactor as the sexualization and liberalization of Mexican society. Pop stars, commercials, Telcel girls and foreign programming distance youth from their parents’ demands that sex is only for the marital bed.

“Sex here in Jalisco and especially amongst Tapatios is looked down upon by the conservative religious forces. It’s something to be repressed,” adds Chavez.

If we take this a stage further one could even suggest that what is happening in society is similar to the shifts in the United States, Canada and Europe in the 1960s, when “free love” drove a deep wedge between youth and the generation that had lived through World War II.

It’s an open secret that the motels are commonly used for liaisons with prostitutes. A call to one of Guadalajara’s primary prostitution agencies, which freely advertises in most local daily newspapers, confirms the girls can meet clients in specific motels if requested.

Chavez is quick to admonish the politicians who promote their own religiosity at every opportunity but willingly approve licenses that enrich the coffers of city halls.

“Again it’s a double standard,” says Chavez. “Turning their heads the other way even though we all know what it going on.”

Citizens demand an end to violence

Two citizen organized peace marches in response to Tuesday night’s violence in Guadalajara drew 750 people on Wednesday afternoon.

Around 50 percent of the mainly young demonstrators wore white T-shirts as a sign of peace. Most knew about the hastily arranged demonstrations through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The protest carried the title “No more blood in Guadalajara.”

Hundreds of young men and women showed what the vast majority of Tapatios think about the drug-related violence currently gripping parts of the state.

“We are here to march, to show we are against the violence and to reclaim the city streets for citizens,” yelled one student from the Jesuit ITESO university via a megaphone.

Married couple Santiago and Ananda Ruiz brought their young daughter Paloma to the march.

“We’re not scared,” Ananda told this newspaper. “But we don’t want the violence to reach levels where we are scared.”

“We’re here as a preventative measure so (Jalisco) doesn’t become like other states,” added Santiago.

Santiago refused to put all the blame on the present government, like many others taking part in the march, and instead traced the origins of the current wave of violence to “years of not looking after areas of society such as youth and education.”

A majority of the activists taking part in the march laid most of the blame for the recent violence not at the door of criminals but the government. Placards with slogans such as “Lazy, corrupt authorities: Enough! Get to work,” were common.

“The wrong things have been done in Jalisco and the country in terms of security,” said Nahum Fernandez. “Putting the army into the drug war has created a cycle of violence. It can’t carry on. The first ones affected are the citizens.”

A common complaint heard was that all levels of governments protect certain cartels and clamp down on others. In Jalisco, narco messages hanging from bridges often blame the state government for supporting one group over theirs. Whether the perception is true or not, many also believe the same occurs on a national level.

“Calderon’s war is baseless,” said Carla Michel. “In reality we all know who he’s protecting. He’s called ‘Chapo’ Guzman.”

“This is the first of many actions,” concluded one student activist through his megaphone. “The people need to be heard.”

Walking down Avenida Hidalgo, chants of “I’m not a terrorist, nor a criminal, I’m a citizen trying to transform the world,” reverberated and cars driving past beeped their horns in support. There was even a stirring rendition of Mexico’s alternative national anthem “Cielito Lindo.”

Opinions may swing from the rational to the radical but after Tuesday’s violence, many Tapatios commented that Wednesday’s march was like a breath of fresh air, especially with the amount of young people in attendance.

“What happened yesterday was very sad, it could’ve been avoided,” lamented Alejandra Topete, a first-year student at the Universidad de Guadalajara. “It does make me a little scared.”
But, like many at the march, Topete also maintains a certain defiance: “It’s not a question of hiding in the house. We have to continue as normal.”

BBC ‘jokers’ outrage Mexico with xenophobic slurs

Famed Guadalajara-born soccer player Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez – who plays for Manchester United in England – is reported to have given the go ahead for a campaign highlighting the prejudice against Mexico shown in a recent episode of the BBC’s automobile-themed show “Top Gear.”

Local soccer star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has won the hearts of many fans in England thanks to his talent and personable character.

Pundits Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May began a segment on the first-ever Mexican sports car by asking why someone would even want a Mexican sports car if cars reflect national characteristics.

“German cars are very well built and efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick and Mexican cars would be lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight,” says Hammond in the video, which is now difficult to find on the internet.

“They can’t do food the Mexicans,” adds May. “It’s all like sick with cheese on it. Refried sick.”

After a couple more “jokes,” Hammond adds: “I’m sorry but just imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican.”

Clarkson responds: “You could just go back to sleep again.”

Clarkson, known for his borderline offensive jokes added: “There won’t be complaints about this because the ambassador will be sat with the remote control in the Mexican embassy like this (Clarkson pretends to snore).”

Top Gear is famous in the United States and the United Kingdom for its outlandish pranks and jokes but complaints immediately flowed into the BBC, with the Mexican ambassador to the UK, Eduardo Medina, particularly riled.

“These offensive, xenophobic and humiliating remarks only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice against Mexico and its people,” read a statement that also demanded an on air apology.

One 30-year-old Mexican student in the United Kingdom, Iris de la Torre, is attempting to sue the BBC under new equality laws. Her lawyers claim it could cost the BBC one million pounds in damages.

Soccer star Hernandez has been given rave reviews for his performances on the field this season and Spanish-language sports daily Record says he has lent his name to a Powerade commercial. Chicharito is featured on the poster,with words on his shirt reading: “Yes, imagine waking up and remembering you are Mexican.”

Underneath is the slogan: “Less prejudice, more exercise.”

The BBC issued a statement Thursday apologizing for the comments: “Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganized and over dramatic; the French being arrogant and the Germans being over organized.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is due to visit Mexico later this month and can expect to be quizzed about the comments.

Just hours after the controversy blew up, the British embassy in Mexico City tried to defuse the row and tweeted: “300,000 British tourists visit Mexico every year, and come away struck by the Mexican warmth, hospitality and the beauty of this country.”

British leave permanent mark on Mexican town

There’s a familiar waft in the air in the old mining town of Real del Monte in the state of Hidalgo but it’s nothing like the burning meat smell from taco stands.

There’s a sharp breeze too and the overlooking hills give Real del Monte an enclosed feel, as if the world beyond is a long way away.

Over 3,000 meters above sea level, the temperate climate and vegetation is definitely not what most would consider “Mexican.”

The smell that lingers has its origins far away too, in Cornwall, England, and is of Cornish pasties baking, a remnant of one of the many influences British miners left the town.

Earlier this year Ciro Peralta and his wife were invited to Mexico City to meet British Ambassador Judith McGregor. Peralta owns Pastes El Portal in the center of Real del Monte.

In Real del Monte the pasty shop (spelled “paste” in Mexico) can be seen on most street corners.

The quirky, quaint Cornish pasty tradition arrived in the early 19th century after the newly independent Mexico opened its doors to foreign investment.

The Cornish miners came in 1824 and brought a water pump that enabled them to extract silver that was inaccessible to locals. More arrived from the British Isles as the mine thrived and an English community established itself. A Methodist Church still stands and some of the architecture is said to be “English” by most locals.

The pasty soon became a local speciality.

Explains Mexico City resident Brigette Galsworthy Estavillo, a member of the Cornish Mexican Cultural Society: “In the 17th century, miners’ wives in Cornwall used to make pasties for their husbands to go down the mine with a complete meal. There was no electricity and no way to wash your hands down the mine. The hard crust part was designed to be thrown away at the end of the day. Miners’ hands were full of arsenic and lead.”

Mexican wives were soon copying their English counterparts in sending their loved ones off to the mine with a “paste,” but the Mexicans added a few twists. New types of fillings were experimented with to suit local tastes. Now a typical pasty shop in Real del Monte has options aside from the traditional pasty (minced beef, potatoes, onion), including sausage and beans, pineapple, tuna, mole verde and mole rojo. The “tradicional” is also sold but there are subtle differences with that too. Most contain chili that you wouldn’t find in Redruth or Camborne.

“The ingredients inside the pasty are usually cooked inside the pastry but in Real (del Monte) they don’t usually do that,” says Galsworthy.

Along with the British Embassy in Mexico City, Galsworthy has been part of the drive to promote the relationship between the Cornish miners and Real del Monte.

The Second Cornish Pasty Festival took place on October 8, 9 and 10. Last year’s was the first Cornish pasty festival ever held outside the United Kingdom. A handful of people from Cornwall made the journey to the festival and the British Society in Mexico City brought along two buses. The British Ambassador Judith MacGregor and author and Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy were the invited guests.

Ciro Peralta Gonzalez, the owner of one of the most well-known pasty shops in Real del Monte (El Portal, just off the main plaza), is an Anglophile through and through and has even travelled to Cornwall in search of how to make the perfect pasty.

“It was through restlessness,” says the steely Peralta, surrounded by British memorabilia inside his shop. “It was far from easy but I did it and it was a great experience.”

Around town though, the pasty isn’t the only visible English influence. Names like Rule, Richards and Skewes are still relatively common and the light skin and eyes of some of the townsfolk contrasts with the darker indigenous features predominant in many Mexicans, especially in central Mexico.

Inocencio Hernandez is one of those people with light eyes. Now 80, Hernandez looked after the “English Cemetery” that is perched high above the town for 46 years. He proudly displays the OBE (Order of the British Empire) awarded him by Queen Elizabeth II. Like many in the town, he remains fiercely patriotic to Britain and his one remaining ambition is to actually meet the Queen. “If you see her,” says the frail octogenarian. “Tell her it’s been an honor to serve her.”

Hernandez’ daughter Maria Hernandez Skewes is now in charge of relating the legends of the cemetery to visitors.

“There’s 770 graves here, the majority English but also Irish, Scottish, German and one Chinese,” says the enthusiastic Maria Hernandez.

The moss and damp wind, combined with names like Richard Noble, Roberto Tindall and Richard Bell on the gravestones, can temporarily transport you to the British Isles.

“All the graves point towards England,” says Maria Hernandez. “Except one.”

The one at odds is that of Richard Bell, from Teesdale, who died in 1875. Local legend says Bell wasn’t very popular with the English in Real del Monte and asked that his tomb point away from England as a sign of rejection of his homeland and the local English community.

On the steep way down back to the town’s central plaza, you’ll pass what seems like a perfectly irrelevant car park. Ask around and people will tell you it is the first place soccer (futbol) was ever played in Mexico.

In fact, one Juan Aldama claims he found a leather football (soccer ball) the Cornish miners had put together in a box labelled “Dynamite” on the roof of his house. He says it is from the 1840s. If that is true, it would mean Mexico was one of the first countries to play soccer as we know it today.

Aldama says the English workers played soccer on their way home after work. Just maybe they also stopped for a quick pint and pasty after. In Real del Monte, it wouldn’t seem that out of place.

Huichols grapple with ‘modernity’ as they woo the tourist trade

Smiling foreign faces holding up prize catches of bass. If you try searching for “Aguamilpa dam” on Google, those are the images that appear. The Ajijic Fishing Club makes regular visits.

For the Huichol indigenous community native to the area, the same smiles hide an intriguing story behind Nayarit’s Aguamilpa dam that has turned the lives of these indigenous people upside down. Paradoxically, it may have also carved out a new path for them.

The “town” of Potrero de la Palmita is set in the lush and stunningly pretty Sierra de Picachos and has a population of around 480 people. Three-and-a-half hours from Lake Chapala and Guadalajara via Tepic, Potrero de la Palmita is only accessible by boat.

Back before the dam was completed in 1993, life was very different for the Huichols of Potrero de la Palmita.

[Life in the Potrero de la Palma Huichol community on the edge of the Aguamilpa dam may still look quaint to an outsider but increased integration with the outside world is providing a challenge to a new generation of indigenous Huichols. The scenery, it must be said, is breathtaking.]

Life in the Potrero de la Palma Huichol community on the edge of the Aguamilpa dam may still look quaint to an outsider but increased integration with the outside world is providing a challenge to a new generation of indigenous Huichols. The scenery, it must be said, is breathtaking.
They lived two hours north in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountain range at a place called La Palmita. Cut off from government services, living in what would be described as abject poverty fortified by frequent droughts, the mainly non-Spanish-speaking community sought change.

“It was a different life back then,” says Isidrio de la Cruz, 39, the community’s leader. “We used to get from town to town on donkey or by walking.”

In 1998, de la Cruz says the decision was made to move the community and construct new homes on the banks of the Aguamilpa dam. Life changed almost overnight.

With the only way out by boat, most of the men turned to fishing for income. Today, if the catch is good, the produce might be taken to Mexico City to be sold. If not, it is hawked around the dam or in Tepic.

The move brought the Huichol community into a much deeper relationship with mainstream Mexican society.

“About 90 percent of us speak Spanish,” says de la Cruz. “Now we have a clinic, an elementary school, middle school and a high school. It’s a different life for the young ones.”

De la Cruz’s education was up to primary school level and he struggles to write basic words in his native Huichol tongue without the aid of a nearby youth.

Out on the large lake in one of the community’s boats, de la Cruz pulls up alongside a wooden structure sticking out the water and begins to explain something that still rankles.

“This was a religious sacrifice point, it’s where the two rivers meet,” he says, gesturing toward the River Santiago that skirts metro-area Guadalajara. “Other Huichol communities used to come from Xalisco, from all over to make sacrifices. It was a spiritual place.”

It’s now under 150 meters of water.

At midday on a recent Saturday, Potrero de la Palmitas radiates little in terms of spiritually, although the community provides a fascinating insight into changing cultures faced with globalization. In Mexico’s bicentennial year, it’s also a narrative of the continued awkwardness in addressing the indigenous peoples in the political rhetoric of a “modern” Mexico.

De la Cruz is dressed in the traditional Huichol garb with pink deer, peyote and corn stitched on. It’s quickly noticeable that he is the only one in such clothes.

“They are clothes only used for ceremonies and festival,” laughs an older lady, who, like most of the women, was wearing the traditional long skirt. (De la Cruz changed into his everyday clothes after having a few photos taken.)

The fishermen had already called it a day and were slumped outside the hut-like houses, empty cans of Modelo Especial beer on the ground next to them.

“They finish early Saturday and they like to have a few cans,” says de la Cruz, adding that he doesn’t really approve.

Saturday night is party night in the village and it’s surprisingly lively.

“They come from the other communities,” says a señora in accented Spanish. “All the young ones will be here.”

Come 9 p.m. and the music is blasting out despite the fact the only electricity in the community comes from solar panels and is mainly used for visitors. The music is banda, the sound of the youth across all Mexico and the youngsters are dressed no different than in any other small, cash-strapped Mexican pueblo.

As the party gets into full swing, boats full of people roll into the village from the 19 other indigenous communities dotted around the dam.

Youngsters have sweethearts in these communities, and visits are frequent. But courting wasn’t always so liberal.

Explains de la Cruz: “Before kids would get married using a traditional marakame (Huichol shaman-priest). The parents would pick the partner from when they were very young. It’s not like that now.”

Like many others, Cruz, a 21-year native of the village with a two-year-old son, lives with his partner (the child’s mother) in a civil union.

“Most of us don’t get married here,” he says. “What’s the point?”

Although he staunchly defends the native Huichol religious traditions, it comes as a surprise to learn that de la Cruz and most people living in the community define themselves as Catholics.

“Catholics believe in one God,” states de la Cruz. “They say he lives in the sky and we do too. God is the sun, the creator of everything.”

He continues: “Some of us get baptized and sometimes priests come to give services.”

The Huichols’ religion is made up of four sacred elements, none of which have anything to do with the Bible: Corn, Eagle, Deer and Peyote. According to the Huichols, each one is a descendent of the sun. There are four cardinal sacred sites, one of which is San Blas, the place the Huichols say the sun was born. The other sites are Real de Catorce (where peyote is consumed) in San Luis Potosi, La Isla de Los Alacranes in Jalisco (near Chapala) and Cerro Gordo in Durango.

Pilgrimages are made every year to these sites, Real de Catorce being most famous because of its association with the hallucinogenic peyote, which Huichols believe puts them in touch with heaven. Sacrifices are made and the marakame whips the assembled up into a frenzy.

One of the biggest problems (as de la Cruz defines it) in conserving the traditional religion has been the recent encroachment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and missionaries from the Luz del Mundo Church.

“They come in uninvited and try to convert people. There are three families that have been baptized.”

Life is not made easier by the missionaries who tell community members that their customs are backward and nonsensical.

In the past, even primary school textbooks have caused controversy but using bilingual teachers, and, one imagines, artistic license, the school system now happily coincides with the community’s syncretic belief set.

The biggest change, challenge and potential savior came in 2005 when the community decided to take up a local university student’s idea to build accommodation for visitors, open their doors to the world and give “tourists” an insight into the culture of one of Mexico’s least understood and more reclusive indigenous group.

“People have come from all over the world,” says de la Cruz. “Denmark, United States, Canada, Japan, France and Morelia.”

The community formed a committee to run the lodgings, give talks about Huichol culture and take visitors on guided tours of the area. De la Cruz himself has even traveled to Canada to participate in an environmental conference.

“It was great, everything was very organized,” he says with a smile.

Whether the culture in the village will continue to be watered down or strengthened by the diversification remains to be seen. On one hand, tourists bringing all kinds of foreign and exotic goods and ideas may entice younger members of the community across the dam and past Tepic out into the wider world. On the other, the increased wealth brought by tourists may be enough – as de la Cruz seems to be gambling on – to persuade the youngsters to stay home and put their energy and education into improving the tourist project.

While Mexican history tends to lead toward the former trend, the Huichols have a reputation for stubbornly defending their traditions. After all, the reason most live far from anywhere in the Sierra Madre mountain range was to escape the Spanish conquistadors.

Just under 500 years since the conquest, the Potrero de la Palmita Huichol community is having to confront the outside world head on. Few definitive conclusions can as yet be drawn.

How to get there

From Guadalajara or Lake Chapala take the highway to Tepic. Just before arriving in the city, take a right at the set of traffic lights that has a huge multicolored pole next to them. There are signs for Aguamilpa but they appeared to be covered by trees! If in doubt, ask. Locals will know for sure where Aguamilpa is. From there, head straight on following the signs to Aguamilpa. Where the turn off for La Cortina appears, veer right until the road ends at a small settlement. There, boats (lanchas) can take you across to Potrero de la Palmita for around 150 or 200 pesos.

The place has a safe feel and is set in beautiful surroundings. You can stay for an hour or two or even weeks on end. Remember to bring a hat and sunscreen, as it is very hot. Also, if Spanish isn’t a strong point, bring someone to translate. The benefit will be immense.

Left wing in Mexico mirrors US Tea Party?

It may seem surreal at first glance to suggest there are similarities between the Tea Party and the movement of Mexico’s left-wing political maverick Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO).

The former supports socially conservative values and rolling back the state in the United States and the latter is a Mexican socialist intent on creating a people’s government.

Nevertheless, the two movements have a common thread: both are anti status quo and rally against the political establishment on their respective side of the border via a grassroots movement.

The rapidly developing Tea Party feeds ravenously off what it perceives as the rotten Washington political corpse and they organize themselves from the bottom up.

Although the end goal is widely different, Lopez Obrador is hoping to feed the flames of political discontent within Mexico and present himself as the man with the alternative agenda to bring hope to the nation. Lest we forget, this is a man who was on the doorstep of the presidential palace in 2006 before the door was slammed in his face. Lopez Obrador lost by less than 250,000 votes. He cried foul, saying the election was corrupt and swore himself in as the “Legitimate President.” He then held mass protests in Mexico City, bringing millions out onto the streets.

In hindsight, that was a bad decision.

“What was he playing after the election? Why didn’t he just let it slide and focus on the next one?” are two common responses when you ask Mexicans about AMLO.

Support for AMLO dropped like a lead balloon as he became increasingly isolated politically.

Since then, AMLO has worked and traveled harder and further than perhaps any other Mexican politician and is fronting a new movement that is hoping to win the presidency in 2012.

In Guadalajara late last year to personally receive an update of how “the movement” is progressing in Jalisco, AMLO seemed to have thrown off the shackles of any constraint he may have felt in representing a broad liberal/left wing coalition in 2006 and now speaks directly to his core supporters. He calls the Mexican elite a mafia, slams neoliberalism, the mainstream media and says the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are one and the same and govern in the interest of a minority while the majority of Mexican citizens remain poor. AMLO is also highly critical of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) – under whose banner he ran for president – and accuses its leaders of treason for creating political alliances with the PAN in several Mexican states.

The aim of AMLO’s movement in the buildup to 2012 is to create a nationwide network of supporters. He wants one representative for each of the 2,438 municipalities in the country and then a further representative for each neighborhood in the municipality. With that, he believes, other parties won’t be able to steal the 2012 election from him.

To achieve this, Lopez Obrador has toured the country continually since 2006, keeping his core supporters motivated and trying to generate new ones. He arrived in Guadalajara on a Saturday afternoon during his last visit after a similar event in Colima in the morning. Internet savvy, AMLO is also one of the most fervent users of Facebook and Twitter in Mexican politics. A YouTube speech is updated on a weekly basis to inform supporters. In addition, he has set up a free newspaper called “Regeneracion,” which his network of supporters distribute, as he says, to balance the negative image he receives from the mainstream media.

The result of the work has clearly rejuvenated his support. To many, AMLO is like a religious figure. The assembled light up when he enters the room in Guadalajara and spark into chants such as, “It’s an honor to be with Obrador,” and the ever popular “presidente, presidente.”

AMLO keeps his faith close to his chest although he is widely believed to be a Presbyterian. His rhetoric has a subtle religious tone too, not just directed at overturning the status quo. Getting people to “wake up,” give them “hope” and “be honest” is part of AMLO’s appeal.

Take this quote from his speech in Guadalajara: “We are fighting for our moral and cultural values. There are so many Mexicans who wake up and think they having nothing to live for. They live without hope.”

The basis of the hope spelled out in his books is that there is no need for Mexicans to be poor — just look at the wealth of natural resources abundant in the country, he points out.

Many of AMLO’s supporters are clearly living on the bread line and are eager to thank him for his efforts on their behalf. But the news during his recent trip to Guadalajara wasn’t entirely good. Many of his workers around the state reported difficulties in garnering new support.

AMLO asked for a redoubling of efforts and for every one of his supporters to convert five others. He calculates that he has the support of 20 percent of Mexicans at present and that if each one of those converts five others he can win the presidency in 2012.

The problem is that AMLO’s name is, rightly or wrongly, tainted in the eyes of many Mexicans. The PRD has a new darling who is likely to be given a shot at the presidency: Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. If both end up running in 2012, the result is very likely to cause a big split of the left wing, liberal vote in Mexico, which would hand power to either the PRI or the ruling PAN.

In that lies a lesson that the Tea Party might be wise to heed: don’t stray too far away from the Republicans or the consequences may come back to bite.

  • Tom Marshall

    Journalist based in Guadalajara, Mexico. Further information or work:
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