Mexico is not a movie

A few days ago 5 human heads were found in ice boxes along the road to Guadalajara.

I suppose it’s one of those questions of life imitating art or vice versa. I suppose it would be a bit of both if the head boxes were found to have been arranged in some cosmic type pattern; the murderous combination of style and substance. Alas, the criminals of Mexico have far too little imagination…which is probably for the better.

It’s jarring how “inside the box” Mexican drug cartels are. People keep telling me how creative they are, but I disagree. How creative is it to figure out “drugs need to go from here to there, let’s go. People are in our way, we will shoot them.”

This is the distinction between people like the Zodiac Killer, who was a perfect example of life imitating art, and the Mexican cartels, which operate with a bit more pragmatics.

The other night I fell asleep watching “Traffic.” When I awoke the movie was over and the news was on, and in my groggy state I failed to tell the difference.

Where does the truth begin and the lie end. When does Carlos Herrera become Steven Bauer? Where does the girl who disappeared from my classes become Erika Christensen? Where does the movie end with happy children playing baseball?

In movies, style is what matters most. More than storytelling, more than characters – it’s style.

Many people I talked to said they liked the first 45 minutes of Wall-E, where there is no talking, most. It’s style, with a complete disregard for substance. 45 minutes and all we learn is that Earth is polluted and there’s a robot putting stuff into boxes. The fact that the robot falls in love with another robot is incidental style at it’s most pure. It might be cute, but it doesn’t advance the story the way blunt substance should…and that is what makes it beautiful.

45 minutes of silence.
45 minutes of style.
45 minutes of existential bliss…it is what it is, and we know nothing else to argue with

Once dialogue starts, it feels like something is lost. A moment of beauty has passed. We now have to face the reality of a storyline.

And that’s the thing…

It’s all substance, all storyline, all dialogue, this Mexico thing.

And I find myself waiting for some style. I find myself waiting for some silence.


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Filed under culture, links, Mexico: Gangs and Violence, narratives

Pig Flu: Economy vs. Health and Lessons Learned from the Korean Beef Protest

Note: let me make this clear, this post is not about the spread of Pig Flu through eating pork. All reports indicate that eating pork will not give you the Flu. Instead, this post is about people putting economic concerns over health concerns.

Let’s be honest, eating pork is not on everybody’s wish list right now, health reports be damned. It’s like it was with Mad Cow. Even though properly cooked meat would not spread the disease, many people still chose not to eat it.

Choosing not to eat something is a luxury that only a fraction of the people on this planet can afford. Some people in Mexico can afford this luxury, many more can not.


Almost a year ago Korea had what were affectionately titled “Beef Protests.” They were a series of protests that were obstentially about people’s disapproval of Korea allowing the United States to import their beef.

The Pig Flu outbreak, which by all accounts began in Mexico, is totally different. However, there are some lessons that we can learn from the Korean beef protests.

The protests in Korea, while said to be about beef were about more than beef. They were more of a reaction to U.S. globalization. Cheap American imports would hurt the Korean beef industry, true, but it was more about the administrations supposed willingness to do whatever the U.S. told them to.

That being said, I spoke with a number of Koreans that expressed genuine fears over the sanitation of the U.S. beef, what with Mad Cow and all. These fears were not limited to a few crazies with kim chi stains on their shirts. These fears were felt by many people.

But when the U.S. beef was finally imported it sold out in a matter of hours, why?


The United States could provide meat at cheaper prices than their Korean counterparts and many people took them up on their offer. Despite all the anger, all the grandstanding about health it was people’s very real economic needs that took precedent.

In Mexico pig is the meat of choice, why?


It’s cheaper than cows or lamb; you can keep a bunch of them in a small area and literally feed them slop. Most every food business in Mexico relies heavily on pork production.

A quick walk down the street reveals that street stands that sell pork are still doing business. Not just open, but selling. In a country wrecked by poverty people just can’t afford an alternative, and many businesses can’t afford to dump their product without a return on their investment. Again, just like Korea, people’s economic needs will outweigh health concerns.

This is not about the spread of disease, but rather economic vs. health concerns. People in Mexico will still eat pork because of price, and if the meat is prepared properly they should be fine.

However, what would have happened if the outbreak was spread by eating pork? Would people have stopped eating it? Would they have put their health concerns above economic realities?

Granted, the parallels between U.S. Beef and Mexican Pork -which do not spread disease – against a hypothetical situation where the disease is spread by Pork are far from perfect. They prove nothing. However, I think the question needs to be raised, and if history can be an indicator it shows that when push comes to shove, money trumps health.

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The one where I feel bad for not appreciating the gifts I’ve been given

I have begun to suspect that the gods of karma and I are not on speaking terms.

If we were, I imagine our conversation would begin something like this…

“Hey, karma god…what the hell man? Why does everything suck so much lately? I’m losing tons of money on the exchange rates between the won and the peso. Finding a job for next year is sharing a zip code with impossible. And gang violence in Torreon has closed down the few weekend hot spots, pushing an already boring city to the verge of glue huffing boring. You owe me.”

To Which I’m sure he’d reply…

“Screw you; you white upper-middle class, world traveling, lazy, self-absorbed asshole.”

To which I would reply…

“But dude…seriously…c’mon.”

At this moment, having no direct karma god to speak to, I instead listen to my karmic force, who is taking the form of a 50 year old, excited, Spanish teacher. I am too worn out to argue back.

Instead of arguing, my eyes skim my teacher’s edition of the 7th grade literature book. I think the first sentence of “The Dog of Pompeii” is exactly what I am skimming, if I were to be more specific.

My karmic force is bubbling on with some students who have wandered into the teacher room where she and I sit. My karmic force tells me that these students are like her daughters. I mention to my karmic force that the students she was just talking to were more like my “middle of the road-put in minimal effort-and talk when I am talking” students.

I’ve always wondered if my karmic force wasn’t too chummy with some of the students. It’s a luxury I have tried to fight. As a young teacher with good hair (and I do have good hair), even the slightest hint of camaraderie with my students, I have found, leads them to believing we are the best of friends.

“But AYYYYYY Mr. Matt, why you yell at me? You are cool teacher,” says the student who just realized that young teacher or not, he needs to shut the hell up when I am trying to explain something to the class.

I have to maintain professional distance. My karmic force does not. As an older teacher, with children my age, she is able to walk that thin line between teacher, sage, and companion that I one day hope to walk myself. She cries when the students cry and laugh when they laugh. I sit there and re-read the opening lines to “The Dog of Pompeii.”

My karmic force is talking to me again.
“Do you know Stephanie? I asked her what she did this weekend and she told me that she wasn’t able to do anything.”

“Because of the violence? Or because she was in trouble?” I asked.

“Because of the violence, but she has not been able to go out for a very long time. I have forgotten that. Like, a year and a half ago her parents were kidnapped by some drug dealers. Her mom came back, but she was very badly beaten, and…”

She covers her mouth and whispers…

“She might have been raped. But she never told anybody.”

“That’s awful,” I reply, feeling genuinely upset for the sad effects the Mexican gang wars have had on the children and families of Mexico.

“Her dad has never returned. Now she lives with her grandma, and she won’t let her go out at all.”

It is at this point that I stop reading the first line to “The Dog of Pompeii.”

“Um, Karma?” I venture.

“So there, you spoiled upper-middle class white kid who has traveled around 3 continents while being paid more than the local shopkeeper with a family to feed…we have better lives to balance out here.”

My karmic force, indeed.

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Filed under culture, Mexico: Gangs and Violence, narratives, teaching/education

Silly White Boy; Banda is for People with Rhythm

Many various forms of music punctuate the Mexican Soundtrack; Electronic, Banda and Reggaeton are all culturally relevant forms in Mexico, and each has their niche.  Hip Hop, Pop, Rock and Emo are also popular here, but have so few cultural idiosyncracies that it makes me want to vomit.

One form that I could never picture myself listening to by myself, yet seem to love anyway, is Banda.

Banda is essentially Mexican big band music.  If you can picture a group of 15 or so men, who travel around with horns, guitars and oversized cellos, you can picture banda.  Banda is easily the most culturally exclusive form of music that Mexico has.

Below is a Banda music video.  Let me describe for you, here, the plot to every single Banda video.  Band plays music in exotic looking location.  Members of the band not singing or playing sway back and forth.  Flashbacks to the childhood of the lead singer where he remembers a childhood girlfriend.  Lead singer sees childhood girlfriend again as an exotically beautiful full grown woman.  Romance and more swaying ensues.

You have to love a good clarinet duet.

Despite my love for Banda I don’t think Banda will ever love me back.  I can not figure out how to dance to it.  Banda is the really exotic girl at the club who will never give me her phone number because I don’t speak perfect Spanish, nor am I wearing sunglasses after 9 o’clock.  Also, hair gel and I get along less than Banda and I.  I imagine this really exotic girl likes guys with hair gel.

The Banda dance seems simple enough, but for some reason I can’t master it.  It’s just a bunch of turning around in circles, rhythmically swaying, and holding a girl uncomfortably close.  This is beyond me.

Whenever I try to master this dance I end up surrounded by 20 Mexicans laughing at me.  However, I think I’m not doing that bad of a job.  Sometimes they tell me I’m not moving my hips enough, so when I do that they laugh and tell me I’m not moving my shoulders enough, and then when I do that they laugh and tell me that this isn’t a Merengue song. Then I just get confused.

An example of the banda dance follows.

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The Lion has Taken Over the Circus: The Rise of Los Zetas

Murders in Mexico are on the rise in 2009, and the violence has left many people questioning whether or not Mexico might become a failed state.  Much of the violence is perpetrated by the new Mega-Cartel, “Los Zetas.”

In March of 2002, U.S. Customs agents were involved in a shootout south of Phoenix with an enemy they had not seen before. Equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, and state-of-the-art communications, in a word – it looked “military.”

Kyle Barnette says, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it concerns us.”

This quote refers to one of the first battles believed to have involved Los Zetas, a group which was born when 30 or so members of a special Mexican military unit deserted.  Mentioning their supposed origins is a pre-requisite of any article or conversation regarding Los Zetas.

Formed as a Green Beret style militia, trained by U.S, French, and Israeli Special Forces, this unit was originally called the Gafes. Ironically, special training was for the purpose of combating Drug Cartels. Lack of education kept them from advancing any further in the military. Lack of education kept the heavy decision making out of their hands and instead gave them the heavy lifting.

Drug Cartel Enforcer Unit is a few pay grades higher than Glorified Grunt of the Mexican Military.

Because they are ex-military they are able to use sophisticated weaponry and carry out intricate operations. This made them a favored hire of the Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas have also trained other paramilitary groups. One in particular is Los Negroes, which if the name is any indication is just like Los Zetas, but with black guys.

In 2006, Felipe Calderon was elected as Mexico’s new president, and he promised to clean out Mexico’s drug cartels.

“(Calderon) decided to launch a proper war on the drug barons, deploying more than 36,000 troops and police around the country… The initiative has nabbed some top cartel bosses and drug shipments, but the drug gangs are as defiant as ever”

The arrest of cartel bosses led to vacuums of power. Vacuums of power have allowed Los Zetas to take over many of the operations historically run by cartels.

“The Gulf cartel created the lion, but now the lion has wised up and controls the handler,” said the U.S. law enforcement official, on condition of anonymity. “This has resulted in the lion roaming free and leaving a bloody trail of chaos. The Zetas don’t ask the Gulf cartel permission for anything anymore.”

No longer a group of egalitarian enforcers, they are now an organization of leaders, middle-management and soldiers; suppliers, smugglers and kidnappers. Hired street gangs carry out some of the day to day work.

Like any good company they have aggressively expanded their boundaries. At first limited to the northern states where they could help control shipping routes, they have now moved farther south where production occurs.

The recent fighting in Torreon stems largely from Los Zetas fighting with rival cartels as they move farther south. Torreon is open territory. This sort of thing would never occur in Mazatlan, located on the west coast and securely in the territory of the Chapo Guzman led Sinaloa Cartel.

Their grab for power has also led to the recent upswing in violence in key border cities, such as Juarez.

“The Zetas have clearly become the biggest, most serious threat to the nation’s security,” said Raul Benitez, a Mexico security expert at American University in Washington, D.C.

People in charge of knowing such things remain unsure how many members Los Zetas actually boasts. Estimates are anywhere from 50ish to 2,000ish. Most seem to think the number closer to 200ish and it probably varies depending on the day, season, or operation.

Their ability to control a large area with few members stems from their aforementioned hiring of local gangs. Bullying and purchasing local law enforcement adds to their unofficial ranks.

The rise of Pseudo-Zetas can also explain why their numbers seem larger than they are. Pseudo-Zetas are criminals who are not Zetas, but cash in on the name. In the midst of their illegal activity they may yell out something like “I am a Zeta.” This works because people don’t squeal on Zetas. If they do they will kill you.

Pseudo-Zetas have also been known to frequent establishments that real Zetas “protect.” Pretending to be real Zetas, the Pseudos demand “protection” money and make a nice little profit off the clout of a feared gang. This seems clever until the real Zetas find out and kill them.

Zetas are believed to be active in 31 Mexico states. There are 31 Mexican states in total and the federal district of Mexico City.

If you see a Zeta, I am told not to stare at them as they are very secretive. They might kill you…which at this point seems wholly unimaginative.

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No News is Good News: Rumor and News in Torreon

If there is one thing I’ve picked up about Mexico, it’s that people here like to talk.  Anytime my classroom is totally silent, I cringe…it feels weird.  Body Snatcher style.

With so much talking, lots of rumors get spread.  It’s tough separating out the legitimate facts from third-rate hearsay, and everything in between.  Believe me, there’s lot of ‘in between.’

– CNN reported 8 dead and 7 injured last Wednesday in the Torreon/Gomez area.  Residents of the city place the number closer to 30.  I invited you to average out the two numbers on your own to find what is probably closer to the truth. (hint: the average is 19)

– The recent violence stems from a turf war between the newly formed supercartel “Los Zetas” and some other gangs.  I’m not totally sure of the other gangs, but they seemed to be based off the Sinaloa Cartel.  The Sinaloa Cartel is headed by Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán.  Rumor has it that “El Chapo” himself is in Torreon/Gomez.  Another rumor says that he is in Nuevo Laredo.  Another rumors say that he has been dead for 3 years.  Currently, “El Chapo” can be seen on the United States Most Wanted List.

– The United States is sending troops to Torreon to help quell the violence.  So far I have read no reports about this, nor have more than a few people seemed aware of this.  I’m chalking it up to rumor.

– The Mexican Government is sending troops to Torreon/Gomez.  This is true, and was true a week ago.  Very possibly one of the main reasons for the increased number of casualties.

– The bridge between Torreon and Gomez has been shut down due to bomb threats.  Or at least the bridge was shut down for a time a few days ago, it is back open now.  The bomb threats came because a large amount of dynamite was stolen from a nearby town/city.  The dynamite has since been recovered.

– Despite all of this news it seems that the past two days have been calmer than the previous few.  I haven’t heard of any new killings in Torreon/Gomez since Wednesday and the fears that the war would spill over into the U.S. haven’t yet come to pass.

– If you are in Torreon I still urge you to stay away from downtown or any major clubs.  Try not to die and stuff.

– There is a curfew in effect tonight I was told.  When I expressed surprise that things were that bad I was told, “well, not really a curfew, just an advisory that you shouldn’t go out tonight.”

Anyways, rumor states that the Zetas have also advised people to stay indoors tonight as they want to avoid innocent casualties.  This is very thoughtful of them.

One of the teachers at my school who watches Mexican news will let me know if there is an actual curfew put into effect.

– Some of my friends have been saying that “oh, in Mexico City this type of stuff happens everyday.  People around here are just freaked out because it’s new.”

Yes, this is a new thing for the residences of Torreon.  However, Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population near 20 million.  Torreon/Gomez is a combination of cities whoses residency is less tha a million, depending on how many squatters are camping around the city.

Anybody whose anybody here knows each other.  Everybody is somebody’s cousin.  Rumor spreads, fast.  I’m not blaming them for freaking out.  Maybe they know something I don’t…they probably do.

Anyways, stay tuned for more updatess…


Filed under culture, links, Mexico: Gangs and Violence

Bloody Snow Day

The news reports 8 dead in the past two days in Torreon and neighboring Gomez Palacio. The number is closer to 30 if rumor has weight.

One of the main reasons I came to Mexico was for the weather. I was tired of snow.

Tomorrow school might be canceled due to street violence.

And I can’t help but think how much Mexico could use a snow day.

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Filed under Mexico: Gangs and Violence