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Energy reforms see Mexico relinquish total control of its oil reserves

August 18, 2014

Pemex-logo

New reforms mean state-owned firm Pemex will no longer have a monopoly on Mexico’s oil reserves.

After 76 years of state control, Mexico’s oil and gas sector was opened up to private investors when the government signed historic reforms into law last week.

Under the new law, state-run oil monopoly Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) will retain the rights to 83 percent of the nation’s proven oil reserves, but only 21 percent of any reserves that have not yet been discovered.

The latter figure is less than Pemex had asked for but it will please multinational companies like Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell and Lukoil – all of whom are expected to bid for contracts in the auction scheduled for June 2015.

Pemex will retain control of reserves equivalent to around 20.6 billion barrels. The rationale behind auctioning off 79 percent of Mexico’s unproven reserves is that exploiting these may require a degree of investment and exploration that is beyond Pemex’s capabilities…

Click here to read this article in full over at Latin Correspondent.

Mexico’s most loved pre-Columbian brews

August 18, 2014
Acidic, milky and slightly viscous, pulque is something of an acquired taste.

Acidic, milky and slightly viscous, pulque is something of an acquired taste.

Although tequila and mezcal are undoubtedly the most famous Mexican liquors, the nation has also produced a number of lesser known beverages that have endured for centuries. Long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, indigenous Mexicans enjoyed alcoholic drinks made from fermented corn or the maguey plant, such as tejuino, tepache and pulque.

The best known of the three, pulque has made a comeback in hipster circles in Mexico City in recent years, while tejuino remains popular in Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco. Tejuino and tepache are also both popular among the Mexican-American communities of the southwestern United States.

A sacred brew

A milky, acidic and slightly viscous drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey (also known as agave) plant, pulque has been produced for over 1,000 years in Mexico. There are numerous references to pulque in the Aztec codices and in many ancient myths it is associated with Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey.

pulque-hipster

In recent years pulque has become the Mexican hipster’s drink of choice.

Pulque’s alcohol content ranges from around two to eight percent and it is considered high in nutritional value, as it contains carbohydrates, vitamins B, C, D and E, amino acids and minerals such as iron and phosphorus. The health benefits of drinking pulque were recognized by the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations, who allowed pregnant women and the elderly to consume it, as well as he priests, nobles and warriors for whom this sacred drink was usually preserved.

Consumption rose after the Spanish conquest, peaking in the late 1800s, but it declined in the 20th century as beer became more widely available. The central states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala were once home to hundreds of pulque haciendas, but the best place to sample this unique drink is in one of Mexico City’s many pulquerias (pulque bars), which have recently roared back into fashion in the capital’s more bohemian districts.

But be warned: it is something of an acquired taste and pulque virgins may prefer to try one of the many flavored variations available in any good pulqueria. Meanwhile, those looking for a nonalcoholic alternative should try aguamiel, a syrupy drink made from the sap of the maguey that also dates back to the pre-Columbian era.

A mural of Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey, in Guadalajara's La Pulkata.

A mural of Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey, in Guadalajara’s La Pulkata.

“Mint flavor pulque and aguamiel are the most popular varieties among local clients,” according to the bartender at La Pulkata, one of only two or three pulquerias in Guadalajara. Other variations include oatmeal, guava and celery, while tepache is also available at La Pulkata, which is celebrating its seventh anniversary this month.

Adorned with psychedelic murals of Mayahuel, colorful paintings and statuettes, this humble bar draws a young crowd and has much more of a hippie atmosphere than the average Mexican bar or cantina. Mexico may be the world’s biggest consumer of Coca-Cola but you won’t find a drop of it in this establishment, as the slogan pinned above the bar makes clear: “Pulque is our weapon against neo-liberalism.”

Tepache and tejuino

Tepache and tejuino were both originally made from fermented corn by the indigenous Nahual people of central Mexico. While tejuino is still made from the same corn dough that is used for tortillas and tamales, tepache is now more commonly made from fermented pineapple rind.

tejuino

Tejuino is a heavy, corn-based drink commonly served with lime sorbet, salt and chili.

In tejuino production the corn dough is mixed with water and a local form of unrefined brown sugar known as piloncillo and then boiled until thick. The liquid is then allowed to ferment slightly, but the final product is either nonalcoholic or has a very low alcohol content at most. Typically sold by street vendors in small plastic cups or in plastic bags tied with a straw, this stodgy but refreshing beverage is best served cold with lime juice, salt and a dollop of lime sorbet.

Tepache is also produced in quick and simple fermentation process but it is much lighter in texture than tejuino. Red-orange in color, it is typically sweetened with piloncillo and cinnamon, which leaves it with a pleasant sweet and sour flavor. Often seasoned with lime, salt and chili, Tepache perfectly complements the rich, spicy tones of a lot of Mexican cuisine. Like tejuino, it is either non-alcoholic or very low in alcohol, but it combines well with beer, tequila or mezcal for those who prefer to imbibe something with more of a kick.

Tepache perfectly complements much Mexican cuisine, like Guadalajara's fiery tortas ahogadas.

Tepache perfectly complements much Mexican cuisine, such as Guadalajara’s fiery tortas ahogadas.

Prominent PAN politicians filmed partying with strippers

August 14, 2014

Mexico’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN) was rocked this week by the release of two videos that showed senior officials partying with exotic dancers and a suspected drug trafficker at a luxury beach house.

The third high-profile scandal to hit the PAN in as many months, the affair is likely to further damage the image of the opposition party that ruled Mexico from 2000 to 2012.

From January 23-27, the PAN convened a conference in Puerto Vallarta, a popular beach resort in the western state of Jalisco, to discuss Mexico’s energy reforms and agree on the legislative agenda for the year. But by night, it seems the politicians failed to abide by the conservative ideals they so often espouse in public.

The videos, released Monday by Mexican media outlet Reporte Indigo, show high-ranking party members — including federal congressmen from Guanajuato, Nuevo León, Sonora and Sinaloa — drinking liquor and dancing to a live band with strippers from Taboo and Candy’s, two of the best-known lap dance clubs in Jalisco.

The politicians can be seen fondling the women’s buttocks and are heard joking that “the Viagra’s going to run out.” The drunken debauchery took place at Villa Balboa, a 2,000-square foot, seven-bedroom mansion that costs $3,200 a night…

Click here to read the rest of this article and find out why a man suspected of trafficking marijuana and murdering a PAN politician was hired to organize the parties; why two PAN politicians are currently imprisoned in Brazil; and why the PAN had to play down its links to a neo-Nazi organization in Jalisco earlier this summer.

Jalisco governor accused of dirty campaign to destroy political rivals

August 13, 2014
Tlajomulco Mayor Ismael del Toro announced on Tuesday that he has broken off relations with the Jalisco state government.

Tlajomulco Mayor Ismael del Toro announced on Tuesday that he has broken off relations with the Jalisco state government.

Tlajomulco Mayor Ismael del Toro announced on Tuesday that he has broken off relations with the Jalisco state government and accused Governor Aristoteles Sandoval of waging a “dirty war” in a bid to “destroy” his administration.

Three days earlier, Mexico’s Proceso magazine revealed that the state government had set up a “war room” dedicated to destabilizing del Toro’s government and ending the political aspirations of his predecessor Enrique Alfaro. Citing a seven-page document that laid out the government’s strategy against the pair, Proceso reported that the Sandoval administration had been waging a secret war against them ever since it took up office in March 2013.

“From the beginning of my administration I established a total willingness to work together with the governor. He seems to have forgotten this agreement,” del Toro wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “This split will not halt our work which will continue to be serving our citizens and setting an example, as has happened since 2010,” he added, referring to the year when Alfaro was elected.

Sandoval’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government has delayed the release of public funds destined for Tlajomulco and blocked the development of new public transport lines between the municipality and the Guadalajara metropolitan area for political reasons, said del Toro, who represents the liberal Citizens’ Movement.

Del Toro demands answers

“We have information from senior state government officials about the existence and intentions of their war room,” del Toro continued. “Now the media has documented their strategy to remove me as mayor and promote the installation of a municipal council … we demand that the Jalisco governor explain to us why his war room is devising a strategy to displace our government.”

This underhand strategy reportedly included the creation of civic associations that could be used to stir up criticism of the Tlajomulco authorities. Del Toro even alleged that certain civic associations were “responsible for poisoning our bodies of water” in a bid to tarnish his administration’s environmental record.

On Tuesday he announced the deployment of municipal police officers to protect Lake Cajititlan from deliberate acts of pollution. “Tlajomulco will not allow its citizens to suffer or for the stability of the municipality to be affected by us being the target of this attack,” del Toro vowed.

Proceso reported that the attacks are also aimed at preventing Alfaro – who lost the 2012 gubernatorial election by just four percentage points and may run again in 2018 – and the Citizen’s Movement from gaining ground across Jalisco in next year’s midterm elections.

This is not the first time that Alfaro has been the target of dirty tactics. While campaigning for governor in 2012, he complained that lies were spread about him via automated messages left on many voters’ voicemails. In recent years a number of Facebook users in Jalisco have also seen crude anti-Alfaro propaganda that his opponents have paid to appear on people’s newsfeeds.

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Tlajomulco’s municipal government has been the target of a dirty war waged by the Jalisco state government, according to Mexico’s Proceso magaizne.

Mexico’s most transparent administration

Last year the del Toro administration was named the most transparent in all of Mexico and the first to receive a perfect score of 100 in the annual study by non-profit group Citizens for Transparent Municipalities (Cimtra). In contrast, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) administration that governed Tlajomulco just four years earlier had received a score of 34.2, making it one of Mexico’s least accountable governments.

The Citizens’ Movement is very popular in Tlajomulco, where it invites the electorate to vote on what their taxes should be spent on. Del Toro also voluntarily submits to regular referendums in which citizens have the power to revoke his administration’s mandate to govern if dissatisfied with their performance. This has not happened yet.

Despite the popularity of the Citizens’ Movement in Tlajomulco and the Guadalajara metropolitan area – where Alfaro won more votes than Sandoval in 2012 – the party has many enemies across the state of Jalisco. Proceso reported that the PRI’s dirty campaign against Alfaro and del Toro has support from elements of the right-wing PAN, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Green Party, plus academics from the public University of Guadalajara and the private ITESO university.

Sinaloa governor backtracks on state censorship after media outcry

August 8, 2014
Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez Valdez has long been dogged by accusations of corruption.

Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez Valdez has long been dogged by accusations of corruption.

Following a fierce public backlash the governor of Sinaloa has vowed to repeal legislation passed last week that would have effectively prohibited local reporters from covering crime.

Introduced by Governor Mario Lopez Valdez, the controversial bill was passed unanimously by Sinaloa’s state congress on July 31.

But after the Mexican press furiously denounced the legislation, Lopez pledged on August 4 to abolish the bill.

Under the new law, journalists in Sinaloa, a state in northwest Mexico, would have been forbidden from reporting “information related to public safety or law enforcement,” accessing crime scenes or photographing, filming or recording audio of anyone involved in a crime.

The local media would have been limited to publishing information from official press releases issued by the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office, but no one from that office would have been allowed to speak to journalists without the Attorney General’s express permission…

This is my first piece for Latin Correspondent, a new Latin American news site by the Hybrid News Group. Click here to read the article in full.

Cousin of Chinese-Mexican meth kingpin sentenced to 25 years in jail

August 1, 2014
Alleged meth kingpin Zhenli Ye Gon remains in custody in the US fighting extradition to Mexico.

Alleged meth kingpin Zhenli Ye Gon remains in custody in the U.S. fighting extradition to Mexico.

A Mexican federal court has sentenced Ye Yong Ping, the cousin of alleged drug kingpin Zhenli Ye Gon, to 25 years of imprisonment for money laundering and manufacturing methamphetamine.

Yong Ping was found guilty of producing of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, ephedrine acetate and n-acetylmethamphetamine, precursor drugs used to manufacture methamphetamine – or crystal meth as it is more commonly known – at a laboratory in Toluca, Mexico State. He was also convicted of money laundering after it was proven that he was a partner in a business founded with illicit funds in Toluca.

The court acquitted co-defendant Fu Huaxin because of insufficient evidence that he was involved in the criminal enterprise allegedly run by Yong Ping’s infamous cousin, Zhelin Ye Gon. Yet the conviction of Yong Ping is the latest of several recent blows against Ye Gon and his associates.

In July a federal court upheld a prison sentence against his wife, Tomoiyi Marx Yu, who was convicted last year of organized crime and possession of military-grade firearms and ammunition. The charges dated back seven years to when Marx Yu was arrested at the luxury home she shared with Ye Gon in Mexico City’s exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood.

In June this year another federal court sentenced Bernardo Mercado Jimenez, a close associate of Ye Gon, to 95 years in jail for smuggling 80 tons of chemical precursors into Mexico. The shipments were unloaded at the Pacific ports of Manzanillo, Colima, and Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, and then transported to Toluca, where Ye Gon’s organization allegedly used them to manufacture synthetic drugs.

Zhenli Ye Gon's opulent home in Mexico City's Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood.

Zhenli Ye Gon’s opulent home in Mexico City’s affluent Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood.

Breaking bad

Ye Gon is an enigmatic and controversial figure. Once considered an upstanding pharmaceutical entrepreneur with close ties to Mexico’s political elite, he now stands accused of masterminding a crystal meth empire that would have made even Walter White blush.

Born in Shanghai in 1963, Ye Gon migrated to Mexico in the 1990s where he founded the Unimed pharmaceutical company. He became one of Mexico’s largest legal importers of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in cold medicines that can also be used to make crystal meth, and in 2002 he became a naturalized Mexican citizen, with President Vicente Fox himself personally handing him his citizenship papers.

However the Mexican government soon began to suspect that Ye Gon was importing more pseudoephedrine than was legally allowed and in December 2006 federal agents discovered 19 tons of precursor chemicals in his name at the port of Lazaro Cardenas. The authorities believe he was using the precursors to manufacture huge quantities of crystal meth for the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

After months of investigation, in March 2007, the Mexican police and DEA launched a raid on Ye Gong’s Mexico City residence that would go down in history. Ye Gong was not home at the time but the agents who stormed his luxury property uncovered huge stacks of cash stuffed behind false walls and in closets and briefcases. The DEA trumpeted it as “the largest single drug cash seizure the world has ever seen.”

The bust totaled $207 million in U.S. dollars, 18 million Mexican pesos, 200,000 Euros, 113,000 Hong Kong dollars and eleven gold bullion coins. On top of that, the authorities found boxes of expensive jewelry, seven luxury cars, and an arsenal of automatic weapons.

The authorities found over $105 million at Ye Gon's home, the biggest drug cash seizure ever.

The authorities found over $105 million at Ye Gon’s home, the biggest drug cash seizure ever.

Evading Justice

Ye Gon fled to the United States but was arrested four months later in a restaurant on the outskirts of Washington D.C. He was charged him with conspiracy to import crystal meth but U.S. prosecutors eventually dropped the charges after crucial witnesses refused to testify and the Chinese government refused to hand over key documents.

Mexico demanded his extradition but Ye Gon argued he would not get a fair trial south of the border. Having always maintained his innocence, he even claimed that he had been set up by the Mexican government. Ye Gon admitted that the money was from the Sinola Cartel but claimed that it was destined to be used as a secret slush fund to support the re-election campaign of the governing National Action Party (PAN).

Mexico’s Labor Secretary, Javier Lozano Alarcon, had threatened to kill him unless he agreed to hide duffel bags stuffed with tens of millions of dollars in his house, Ye Gon alleged. He even claimed that if the PAN lost then the money would be used to finance “terrorist” activities.

Unsurprisingly, the Mexican government dismissed his tale as a “ridiculous” and “perverse blackmail attempt” at escaping justice. “These lawyers are unscrupulously and uselessly seeking to blackmail the Mexican government with absurd and unbelievable accusations, in an attempt to discourage the government from bringing all the weight of the law to bear against Mr. Zhenli Ye Gon,” read a statement issued by the federal Attorney General’s Office.

Given the lack of transparency in Mexico and the long history of corruption in government, many Mexicans either believed Ye Gon’s account or distrusted the official version of events, a poll by Reforma newspaper showed. Bumper stickers saying “I believe the Chinaman” even went on sale in Mexico.

Authorities recovered a number of gold-plated military-grade firearms at  Ye Gon's home.

Authorities discovered a number of gold-plated, military-grade firearms at Ye Gon’s home.

Viva Las Vegas

Although no longer facing charges in the United States, Ye Gon’s past activities in the country still landed one of Las Vegas’ most famous casinos in hot water. In August 2013, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office fined the Las Vegas Sands Corporation $47.4 million dollars for failing to report Ye Gon’s highly suspicious gambling activities.

All casinos are obligated to alert U.S. authorities to suspicious transactions that may involve dirty money, but Sands made no report of Ye Gon blowing $85 million at its famous Venetian hotel between 2004 and 2007. On the contrary, The Venetian was so enamored with Ye Gon that it showered him with gifts including a complimentary Rolls Royce. Ye Gon also lost another $40 million at a number of nearby casinos, bringing his total losses in Vegas to $125 million.

It remains unclear whether Ye Gon was deliberately losing his money in an elaborate money laundering scheme, or whether he was simply so wealthy that he afford to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on a whim. But serious concerns were raised by the fact that The Venetian reportedly permitted him to transfer his funds from Mexican banks and currency exchanges via a Sands subsidiary in Hong Kong before returning them to Las Vegas. Sands also allowed Ye Gon to transfer money into an aviation account that it used to pay its pilots, so as to avoid the funds ever being directly linked with the casino.

Sands ultimately avoided prosecution after agreeing to cooperate with investigators and make changes to its compliance program. Ye Gon, meanwhile, remains in custody in the United States, immersed in a protracted legal battle to evade extradition.

Review: Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole

July 21, 2014
Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

I’ve just got around to reading Down the Rabbit Hole, the semi-surrealist debut novella by Tapatio author Juan Pablo Villalobos. This charming but slightly disturbing short story is narrated by the precocious young son of a Mexican drug lord who is desperate to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

The title is an obvious nod to Alice and Wonderland and the protagonist, Tochtli, is clearly as lonely and bored as Alice was, only his “wonderland” is a remote palace in the realist but still quite surreal context of Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Tochtli, who only knows “about 13 or 14 people” – plus another 10 or so dead people, but they don’t count, he says – lives with his paranoid father and is homeschooled by his minders. The tragicomic novella details his quaint obsession with hats, the French, samurai warriors and that elusive Liberian pygmy hippopotamus of his dreams, while also throwing in dark references to Mexico’s machismo culture and the nightmarish world of the drug war.

Combining elements of magic realism and narco-literature, Villalobos presents the world through an observant but naive set of eyes and illustrates the psychological damage that is being heaped not only on the narrator, but on an entire country that is becoming desensitized to violence. However, most of the gory or serious moments (aside from one great tragedy that comes late in the book) are offset by humor, as young Tochtli frequently misses the point to great comic effect.

“Mexico is a disastrous country,” he proclaims amid widespread reports of beheadings and mutilations. “It’s such a disastrous country that you can’t get hold of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Actually, that’s what you call being a third-world country.” (On a side note, Down the Rabbit Hole also supports my personal belief that pozole, a popular Mexican soup, is “ridiculous,” as Tochtli puts it, “because it’s got cooked lettuce in it … Lettuce is for salads and sandwiches.”)

The first book by Villalobos – who was born in Guadalajara and later moved to Barcelona and then Brazil – Down the Rabbit Hole was released in 2011 and became an instant critical success. It was nominated for The Guardian’s First Book Award and has been translated from Spanish into English, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Romanian. If you’re into Latin American literature it is well worth picking up a copy.

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