Tan lejos de la patria

An exhibition displays the struggles and successes of Mexicans living in the UK

Part of the ‘Being Human’ festival, ‘Mexicans UK’ illustrates a mixed community of backgrounds both similar and distinct, of futures aimed and obscured. It explores concepts of blurred humanity and personal imagination among those Mexicans who came to the UK for work or study, for love or family.

It is a collaboration between the brother-sister act of Mexican-British photographers Roxana and Pablo Allison. It consists of 32 portraits: one person from all 31 Mexican states and also the federal district of Mexico City.

Here are some of the images that stood out for me:

Mariacarmen Cárdenas - (Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Mariacarmen Cárdenas (Mexico City) – Credit for this image and all photos below: Pablo and Roxana Allison

Mariacarmen Cárdenas told a sad tale. After coming to the UK with her British husband, the marriage broke down and she went through family and workplace battles. She painted a sorrowful picture of life in the UK but was adamant she would not be returning to Mexico. She seemed to be facing her situation defiantly; a position of quiet strength emphasised in the picture above by her gaze and the political memorabilia of indigenous struggle.

 

Karla Mancilla - (Credit: Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Karla Mancilla (State: Baja California Sur)

Originating from Baja California Sur, Karla Mancilla’s story struck me as the narrative of water: migration and movement. Waves swell with force and becalm with stillness; they could carry Karla back home, or bar her way. She is from a Pacific state back home and is sitting in the picture here next to a British watercourse. She talks in detail about the oceanic fauna of her state, the whale sharks, dolphins and sea lions. Ms Mancilla lists shredded manta ray as her favourite dish.

 

Willams Santis - (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Willams Santis   (Chiapas)

Williams Santis came to the UK for family. He met an Irish girl in Mexico and had a baby with her, then moved from Mexico to be with them in the UK. He now works in a car park and as an artist. Here, leaning against an open caravan door, is he pondering the racism that he says he suffers in the UK? Or his proud indigenous roots? Maybe he is thinking about the Irish woman and his child. For Mr Santis, love knew no bounds.

 

Michelle Dominguez (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Michelle Dominguez   (Chihuahua)

Troubling security and political instability are the main concerns for Michelle Dominguez, as she looks back to the land of her birth. I liked her pose here, caught between two rooms – two countries – casually hovering under one sky, one roof. She is leaning on the threshold against a pane of mottled glass, blurring the views back to where she has come from and blurring the future for those left behind.

 

Efrain Carpintero (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Efrain Carpintero   (Querétaro)

The quietness, religiosity and burgeoning economic activity of Querétaro state are called to mind by Efrain Carpintero, who is in the UK researching for a PhD. I felt a positivity coming through this portrait, an academic ambition from a softly beautiful state.

 

Natalia Cervantes (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Natalia Cervantes   (Sinaloa)

Layered in Nature, staring straight ahead, perhaps Natalia Cervantes is combining her thoughts: a wooded mix of the dusty plants from her home state of Sinaloa and the wet verdancy of her adopted country. This image caught my eye for its natural setting and the fact the woman is Sinaloan, from an edgy corner of the country, and here is painting a picture of the people and the food, tinged with bloody streets of drugs violence, set against the mountains, plains and coastline.

MEXICO ELECTION V – ‘I was close to dying too’

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

It is late morning in Jilotepec, a small town 90 minutes’ drive northwest of the capital, and the daily heat is starting to build. The municipal seat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is quiet the day after the end of campaigning but there are still a dozen young activists meeting in cool rooms in the flowery quandrangle. The 10ft outside walls which enclose the courtyard are coated with the names of different candidates, painted brightly in the PRI’s colours of red, white and green. The huge neat letters bellow at passers-by that the men and women of the PRI “promise to deliver” and that “Jilotepec is our commitment”.

Inside the party’s town headquarters I speak with José Alberto May Montiel, who is the secretary for electoral action of the PRI’s ‘New Mexico’ youth movement. At 24, he is my age and dressed casually with a baseball cap on to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. He speaks clearly and calmly about his love for the PRI, the once-dominant party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for more than 70 years until it lost its parliamentary majority and the presidency in 1997 and 2000.

One of the concerns I have heard from Mexicans as the PRI has built had large lead in the municipal, state, governor, parliamentary and presidential polls is that the party that would be put back in power by the people has not changed in its twelve years in opposition. They are fears that it is still the PRI of old, when winks, nods and backhand deals allowed it to maintain itself in power for decades and get rid of any opposition to its one-party rule. José Alberto admits that the PRI of the past “was bad and there was corruption” but he is iron-firm in his belief that the party has cleaned up its image, got rid of all the old problems and has a fresh, youthful team to lead it back into power.

But what will the PRI do when it gets there? José Alberto says the most important issue is to improve the education system and then to get more Mexicans into jobs. And he says this is how Enrique Peña Nieto is going to combat the appalling violence across the country. He cannot find words enough to condemn the policies of outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN), who deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight the gangsters. The PRI activist assures me that Peña Nieto would use “more subtle tactics, such as educating the people better and providing gainful employment” to tempt the gang members away from a life of crime. But these are long-term policies: what does he suggest now? “There is no immediate solution” he confesses.

He tells me that the government knows where Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán is. The most-wanted drug lord in the world, who heads up the powerful Sinaloa organisation, escaped from prison in 2001 and José Alberto is convinced that the PAN, which was in power at the time, facilitated the laughable prison break in which Guzmán made off hidden in a laundry basket.

He closes by recounting a chilling tale from 2010 when Rodolfo Torre Cantú, PRI candidate for governor in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was shot dead alongside two of his advisers. José Alberto was working on Torre Cantú’s campaign and was travelling in the convoy that was attacked by armed men. He tells me of the frightening ambush and looks at me straight in the eye to say “I was close to dying too that day”. Once again, he is certain that it was not a simple gangster attack and he accuses the police of being involved at some level. His happiness from earlier fades slightly and with a huge poster of Enrique Peña Nieto behind him, his gaze ahead suggests that he realises on a very personal level that size of the task facing his beloved candidate to try to bring some semblance of calm back to the streets of his country. But he is sure that the PRI has changed itself and can change Mexico as well if it wins power again this Sunday.

Border-crossing

The US Secretary of Homeland Security hints at a Bin Laden-style killing of leading Mexican mobster

Janet Napolitano recently completed a short tour of five Central American countries. She kicked off in Mexico, where she and the Mexican Interior Minister, Alejandro Poiré, signed security agreements and, it seems, had some heart-to-hearts about the continued search for Forbes Rich-Listed Joaquín ‘Shorty’ Guzmán. In the press conference that followed the meetings Napolitano admitted:

“Well, let me just say it took us 10 years to find Osama Bin Laden and we found him and you know what happened there. I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen with Guzmán, but I am suggesting that we are persistent when it comes to wrongdoers and those who do harm in both of our countries. So that issue continues.”

Joaquín Guzmán is certainly the prize target. He is the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He was jailed in 1993 but has been on the run since escaping in 2001 in a laundry basket. Sightings have been made every now and again of ‘Shorty’ in and around his gang’s state capital, Culiacán. His latest wedding to an 18-year-old bride was well attended. But he is an elusive character and the photograph the press use to illustrate their stories is a grainy picture taken nearly 20 years ago when he was still behind bars.

The Mexican government’s wanted list of mobsters has been growing gradually smaller but killing or capturing Guzmán would be a major coup for the president. After lower house losses in 2009 Felipe Calderón is a lame duck at present and his National Action Party (PAN) seems set to be kicked out of the presidency and the Senate in July’s elections. It would be a boost for the PAN candidate for the top job, Josefina Vázquez Mota, if the wealthy gangster were taken off the beat.

His gang is arguably the most ‘successful’ of the major groups and forms the most important part of the ‘old’ foundation alliance with the Gulf organisation and the Knights Templar. Taking out its mysterious leader would also help stop the comments from across the country that the government has been favouring the Sinaloa gang by cracking down harder on its rivals, the ‘new’ foundation of Los Zetas, La Familia and organisations from Juarez and Tijuana. Analysts of the violence believe that the Sinaloa criminals may have finally wrested control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez from the local gangs; critics of the government say that this was achieved with an ‘understanding’ from the security forces. The president has categorically denied any such plots.

The US has already been given permission from Mexico City to fly unmanned drones over the Sinaloa mountains and Chihuahua deserts of its neighbour to see what it can see. Will the next step be boots on the ground? The American government would want to avoid the kind of backlash seen in Pakistan after the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden there. The Mexican constitution outlaws foreign intervention on its soil. But, as we saw in that villa near the Afghan border in May last year, sometimes the small issue of national sovereignty can be gently pushed aside when its comes to the elimination of the Washington’s ‘high value targets’.

The Quetzal Conundrum

Rising violence will be the biggest problem confronting the next president of Guatemala

The first-round of the Guatemalan presidential election on 11 September produced no clear winner and so a run-off will take place on 6 November. Retired former general Otto Perez Molina (36%) and businessman Manuel Baldizon (24%) will contest the second vote. At barely 2%, support for the only left-leaning candidate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan rights champion Rigoberta Menchú, hardly registered.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of public security formed the core of the election campaigns. The people are worried about powerful criminal organisations from Mexico, such as Los Zetas gangsters, tapping into the Central American underworld of mara criminal units and building allegiances and animosities. In May this year, outgoing president Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern jungle region of Petén after 27 people were brutally killed at a ranch. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 (the second-highest in the region after El Salvador, according to a World Bank report).

Mr Perez Molina adopted a clenched fist as his campaign logo and has promised a firm response to the violence; his pledge to expand the role of the army in the fight against the gangs has been supported by rival Mr Baldizon. However, with weak state institutions and a glance north to current Mexican public feeling about the deployment of the military to battle the gangsters, letting the army loose in the rainforests will be far from an easy twirl of the presidential pen.

Mr Baldizon has hinted at another tough measure to deal with the violence: increasing the use of the death penalty, last used in 2000. This may well be popular with the people but Guatemala must not just look inwards in the battle. The Mérida Initiative pledges much greater US support for Mexico than for Central American nations. Renegotiating the terms of such agreements and calling upon cross-border aid and debate through such institutions as the Central American Parliament, or PARLACEN, (which was founded in Guatemala), would be a prescient and less regionally divisive reaction to the growing crisis.

Mr Baldizon’s pledge to continue the social programmes started by incumber leftist Mr Colom poll well in a country with critical levels of poverty, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, but his promise to ensure the national soccer team qualifies for the 2014 World Cup is a distraction.

By focusing on the destructive violence, Mr Perez Molina has maintained healthy support that will probably see him home in the run-off. Training his eye on the gangsters is one thing but it would also be wise to devote some attention to the July 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which are set to be the most important event in the current drugs violence crisis. If Mr Perez Molina really wants to use his ‘clenched fist’ he will have to shake hands and ensure neighbourly support first to combat this cross-border problem.