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How does corruption in Mexico compare to Brazil, China, India and Russia?

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Mar 282013

Corruption is a serious concern in Mexico and these other four major emerging economies. Corruption is rather subjective and not an easy concept to measure. This post looks into corruption in Mexico, Brazil, China, India and Russia, as reported by Transparency International (TI) in its Perceived Corruption Index 2012 and the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Report for 2012-2013.

Transparency International’s “Index of Perceived Corruption” is based on a wide array of surveys, polls of international experts and interviews with knowledgeable residents. In TI’s analysis of 2007 results, Mexico, Brazil, China and India were all tied at 72nd out of 179 countries. Russia was far behind at 143rd However, by 2012, Mexico had slipped to 105th; India had dropped to 94th, China to 80th, while Brazil improved a bit to 69th. (See also Tim Padgett’s “Tale of Two Corruptos: Brazil and Mexico on Different Transparency Paths”.) Russia moved up a bit, but still was 133rd. Mexico’s fall in the rankings might have been associated with the explosion of drug cartel violence between 2007 and 2012.

The World Justice Project (WJP)’s 2012-2013 Report “Absence of Corruption” ranked Brazil and China at 38th of 97 countries; Russia was ranked 70th, Mexico 74th and India 81st. These WJP rankings do not correlate very well with those of Transparency International (IT). For example, Russia appears far more corrupt in the TI rankings, while India looks more corrupt on the WJP rankings.

The WJP looks into four separate corruption sub-factors. These are listed below with the ranks of the five countries:

1. Government officials in the executive branch do not use public office for private gain.

  • Brazil (40th of 97), Mexico (49th), China (49th), Russia (56th) India (89th)

2. Government officials in the judicial branch do not use public office for private gain.

  • Brazil (33rd), India (52nd), Russia (67th), China (70th), Mexico (84th)

3. Government officials in the police and the military do not use public office for private gain.

  • China (36th), Brazil (37th), Russia (67th), Mexico (84th), India (86th)

4. Government officials in the legislative branch do not use public office for private gain.

  • China (30th), Mexico (51th), Brazil (75th), Russia (77th), India (81st)

The results suggest that Mexico’s main corruption problems are not with the executive and legislative branches, perhaps because the Mexican constitution limits elected officials to only one term. The main problems are with the judicial and police/military branches. Mexico’s judicial reform program which is currently being implemented, should reduce judicial and police corruption. Also police and penal code reforms advocated by President Peña Nieto’s “Pact for Mexico” should help. Mexico’s future corruption ranks according to both TI and WJP could be a bit better because the “Pact for Mexico” identifies corruption as a priority. Only time will tell.

Mar 232013

“Visions of San Miguel. The Heartland of Mexico”, a book about San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, portrays the city, its people and its fiestas, as seen through the lenses of thirty talented photographers. This visually exciting book is an ideal introduction to San Miguel de Allende for the armchair traveler, or a perfect memento for anyone who has visited this splendid city. All four sections of the book are of interest to geographers, not only because they provide a visual guide to many aspects of the city, but also because they reveal some of the reasons why San Miguel has become a popular retirement location for Americans and Canadians.


“Foundations of Greatness”, the first of four sections, opens with a wonderfully atmospheric untitled black-and-white photo (taken by Bill Begalke) showing the town center emerging from the overnight mist. A short selection of historical photos, some dating back to 1870, causes one to muse on just how far the city has progressed (in every way) since then.

The second section, “Cobblestones of Color”, explores the textures and hues of San Miguel. Images range from the earthy tones and patina of an ancient doorway (Glenda Kapsalis), to the brilliant purple jacaranda trees in spring (Dixon Adams); from the elegant interior of the Casa Luna dining room (Douglas Steakley) to an open-air artist putting the finishing touches to a painting of Aldama Street (Atención). There’s a nice design touch here: the next page is a photo (Amanda Moulson) of the view enjoyed by the painter! Two photos (Chuck Jones) show important murals, whilst others show fascinating exteriors of colonial buildings. A fabulously evocative “abstract street scene” (Elsmarie Norby) captures the very essence of San Miguel for anyone who enjoys strolling the back streets, admiring the design, the architecture, the sense of color, the peeling walls.


“Abstract street scene.” Photographer: Elsmarie Norby

Several portraits enliven this section. A formal study of a “quinceañera” (Sondra Zell) at her coming-of-age party is next to a strong portrait of a particularly thoughtful older woman (Jill Genser). A sense of fun and humor pervades several of these photos. The children bathing in tubs at the public laundry (Don Wolf) are certainly enjoying themselves and it looks like the two young children asking a woman about a chicken (Ed Foley) might be about to take on more than they can handle! Don Eduardo, woodcarver and folk artist (Jennifer Haas) is apparently finding the whole business of having his photo taken an enormous joke, while deep in conversation, two flower vendors (Ned Brown) are seemingly oblivious to the photographer as they catch up on the latest news.

The third section, entitled “Fiestas, Fiestas and More Fiestas”, is by far the largest section of the book. Any thought of imbalance is quickly dispelled as an endless stream of fiestas is paraded past the reader. The selection begins with mid September’s Independence Day celebrations and the whirling fireworks of a castillo (Fred Edison). An action-packed street scene of the running of the bulls by the same photographer highlights the exuberant activities of the San Miguelada held the following weekend. This leads into colorful photos of the fiesta for the town’s patron saint at the end of September. A plumed Indian headdress (Ed Foley) suggests the richness of the costuming.

November’s Day of the Dead commemoration amongst the decorated gravestones is luminously captured in the photo “Mountain Light” (Galen Rowell). Colorful scenes from the Day of the Revolution and Christmas pageants follow, but the largest number of photos relate to the Easter celebrations when San Miguel re-enacts the Easter story along flower-carpeted streets. A photo of two elderly ladies in black lace under the cross is a classic portrait of piety (Sue Beere). The Fiesta section concludes with an informal study of the “Blessing of the cowboys and horses” (Richard Kriegler) and a stately photo of one of the world’s least likely events, the “Blessing of the taxis” (Peter Olwyler).

"Two flower vendors". Photographer: Ned Brown

“Two flower vendors”. Photographer: Ned Brown

The fourth section, “La Parroquia, Icon of the Heartland”, focuses on the Gothic Church of St Miguel which dominates the town landscape. Ancient and modern appear side by side: old drawings of the parish church followed by a variety of exterior and interior shots depicting the real thing as we see it today.

The quality of design (by Patricia Anne Tripp) and reproduction is extremely high. The book appears fault-free, barring a handful of missing accents on some Spanish words such as jardín.

This is a memorable book. The photos capture the essence of this vibrant, historic city, but go way beyond that by reminding us of so many uniquely-Mexican sights, sounds, events and personalities. A keeper!

Note: This is an edited version of a review first published on as Visions of San Miguel. The Heartland of Mexico

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Angahuan, the nearest village to Paricutín Volcano in Michoacán, Mexico

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Mar 142013

Last month we recounted the events surrounding the birth of Paricutín Volcano in 1943 in the state of Michoacán in western Mexico:

Angahuan, the nearest village to Paricutín Volcano, is fascinating in its own right, quite apart from its connections to the volcano. The village has a lovely mid-sixteenth century church with many Moorish characteristics, as well as peculiar and distinctive house styles which make widespread use of local timber.

The original name was Andanhuan, which the Indians say the Spanish couldn’t manage to pronounce, hence its transformation to Angahuan. The Purépecha name meant “place on high where people stopped” or “place where the person on high (captain) stopped”.

The Spanish, complete with captain, arrived in 1527, under the command of Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán. One of the first missionaries here, Jacobo Daciano, ordered a Moorish stonemason who was with him, to stay in Angahuan and build a convent. The mason did a fine job—the church ceiling is truly magnificent—and Angahuan church is one of the very few in the country with such marked Moorish influences. The church is dedicated to Santiago (Saint James) and, as elsewhere in Mexico, he is shown astride his horse.

Across the small plaza is a wooden door richly carved in a series of panels which depict the story, or at least one version of it, of the eruption of Paricutín. Judging by one panel, the indigenous Purépecha artist-carpenter responsible for the door, Simón Lázaro Jiménez, clearly had a sense of humor about tourism. His design won first prize in a regional handicraft competition in 1981. The artist rejected the prize, copyrighted his unusual design, and used the finished handiwork as his own front door. He later penned a short book, Paricutín, 50 years after its birth, a vivid first-hand account of the fateful day when the volcano erupted and changed the lives of the local people for ever.

House types in Angahuan: traditional and modern. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

House types in Angahuan: traditional and modern. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

The distinctive house-types of Angahuan called trojes, are built of wooden beams with steep roofs. They are slowly giving way to modern monstrosities built with concrete blocks. The roofs of the traditional houses have either two or four slopes. Those with two slopes, one each side of the house, are called techos a dos aguas (literally “two waters”, “saddle roof” in English), those with four slopes techos a cuatro aguas (“four waters” or “hip roof”).

Angahuan: loudspeakers like this one relay village news.

Angahuan: loudspeakers like this one relay village news. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

Many small Mexican towns and villages rely on a village loudspeaker system for relaying all important events and news. Angahuan is no exception; look for the speakers mounted high over the plaza. Local announcements are in Purépecha, the local Indian language totally unintelligible to Spanish speakers. This is the only common language for the Indians in this area, since many of the older people do not speak Spanish. When necessary, their children will often translate for them. The Purépecha language is not closely linked to any other native Mexican language, but is apparently distantly related to that spoken by the Zuni of the USA and the Quechua and Aymara of South America.

Angahuan is one of the most accessible Purépecha villages in Mexico and well worth visiting, especially if your interests lie more in indigenous ways of life than in the splendid scenery and interesting geology of its surroundings.

This post is a lightly edited extract from my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013). “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” is also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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Does Mexico have an “Open Government”?

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Mar 122013

The World Justice Project (WJP) 2012-2013 Report recently assessed 97 countries on eight Rule of Law factors. The “Open Government” factor involves engagement, access, participation, and collaboration between the government and its citizens. It includes accountability, freedom of information, and ability to petition the government.

The WJP ranked Mexico 32nd of 97 countries in terms of “Open Government”. Brazil ranked one better at 31st, while India (48th), China (69th) and Russia (70th) trailed significantly. For comparison, Sweden was ranked 1st, Canada 6th, USA 13th, Ghana 30th, Italy 47th, Guatemala 58th. Four African countries occupied the very bottom places: Ethiopia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe (94th to 97th , respectively).

In assessing open governments, the WJP uses four subfactors (with Mexico’s rank among the 97 countries in parentheses):

  1. The laws are publicized and accessible (48th)
  2. The laws are stable (26th)
  3. Right to petition the government and public participation (53rd)
  4. Official information is available on request (39th)

These scores suggest that Mexico is pretty much in the middle of the 97 countries assessed. It would do well to focus attention on better publicizing laws and encouraging public participation.

A previous post focused on the WJP analysis of Mexico’s “Criminal Justice System”. Future posts will investigate other “Rule of Law” dimensions of the WJP study.

Map of Yucatán Peninsula including Campeche, Mérida, Cancún, Riviera Maya and Cozumel

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Mar 092013

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a low, flat limestone platform, is the most recently formed part of Mexico. The low topography, which is quite similar to western Cuba and southern Florida, is virtually all below 150 m (500 ft). The submerged western and northern portion of this platform is known as the Campeche Bank. The peninsula was connected to Cuba until the bridging section sank below sea level forming the Yucatán Channel. The west and north coasts are marked by lagoons, mangrove swamps and sand bars. The emergence and infilling of coastal lagoons in the southeastern and southwestern extremities of the peninsula have resulted in areas of marshland interspersed with remnants of the original lagoons.

Offshore to the east lie coral reefs. Most of the peninsula has shallow, highly permeable soils and virtually no surface water. However, underground water is relatively abundant. The peninsula is honeycombed with extensive underground cave systems, which are connected periodically to the surface via hundreds of natural sinkholes (cenotes). The ancient Maya believed that these cenotes led to the underworld.

Map of Yucatán Peninsula. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula includes three states: Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. This region is the ancestral home of the Maya. There are about 800,000 Maya-speakers in Mexico, almost all of them living in this region. There are literally thousands of archaeological sites scattered across the peninsula, including many that are open to the public. Among the more famous are Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Calakmul (all three are UNESCO World Heritage sites), Tulum and  Coba. The city of Campeche (capital of the state of the same name) is also a World Heritage site on account of it being a walled city, one of the very few remaining in Mexico.

The state of Yucatán was important for sisal production. Between 1870 and 1920 the area experienced an economic boom based on the production of twine from sisal (oro verde or green gold). In order to transport the  sisal from the fields to processing centers and from there to the port of Sisal for export, plantation owners built an extensive (4500-km-long) network of narrow gauge railroads:

Quintana Roo is best known today for its tourism industry. The centrally planned resort of Cancún is Mexico’s leading tourist destination:

In Quintana Roo, 54% of the residents were born outside the state. These residents were mostly attracted to Quintana Roo by the rapidly growing tourist industry in Cancún and further south in the area known as the Maya Riviera. Almost 13% of Quintana Roo residents moved into the state within the last five years.

The Yucatán Peninsula has several important biosphere reserves:

  • Ría Celestún (Yucatán and Campeche): coastal region including important wetlands and drowned river valley (ría) with diverse fauna and flora, including flamingos.
  • Región de Calakmul (Yucatán): diverse tropical rainforests; the largest forest reserve in Mexico, with important Maya sites; ecotourism project.
  • Ría Lagartos (Yucatán): coastal estuary with diverse birdlife including more than 18000 pink flamingos as well as some 30,000 migratory birds.
  • Arrecife Alacranes (Yucatán): the largest coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico, and the only one in Yucatán state.
  • Sian Ka’an (Quintana Roo): coastal limestone plain, and extensive barrier reef system on Caribbean coast, with numerous archaeological sites; more than 4,000 plant species.
  • Banco Chinchorro (Quintana Roo): mosaic of open water, sea grass beds, mangroves, sandy beaches and coral reefs; more than 95 species of coral.

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Reforms badly needed for Mexico’s criminal justice system

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Mar 052013

The World Justice Project (WJP) 2012-2013 Report recently assessed 97 countries in terms of Rule of Law, which the WJP defines as “the underlying framework and rights that make prosperous and fair societies possible… where laws protect fundamental rights, and where justice is accessible for all”. Its definition includes four universal principles:

  1. The government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law.
  2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
  3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient.
  4. Justice is delivered by competent, ethical and independent representatives and neutrals, who are sufficient in number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

The WJP looks at eight “rule of law” factors: limited government powers, absence of corruption, order and security, fundamental rights, open government, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice. Rather than attempt to combine all these factors into one rule of law index, the WJP looks at each factor separately. National scores on each factor are developed by surveying 1000 respondents in each country, as well as collecting questionnaires from in-country experts. This post looks at criminal justice; future posts will look at other rule of law factors.

Mexico scored particularly poorly with respect to “Criminal Justice” which the WJP defines as “a key aspect of the rule of law, as it constitutes the natural mechanism to redress grievances and bring action against individuals for offenses against society. An effective criminal justice system is capable of investigating and adjudicating criminal offences effectively, impartially, and without improper influence, while ensuring that the rights of suspects and victims are protected.”

According to the WJP report, Mexico’s criminal justice system ranks a very low 89st of 97 countries. It was 13th of 16 Latin American countries, and 29th of 30 middle income countries. These very low ranks are startling, given Mexico’s relatively high marks on most development indicators. Mexico even ranked below such economically poor countries as Pakistan (80th), Guatemala (84th), Egypt (56th), Ethiopia (49th), Senegal (54th) and Tanzania (47th) as well as behind Brazil (52nd), Russia (75th), India (64th) and China (39th). By way of comparison, Denmark ranked 1st, Canada 13th , Botswana 18th, and the USA 27th.

In assessing criminal justice, the WJP uses seven subfactors (with Mexico’s rank among the 97 countries):

  • criminal investigation system is effective (77th of 97),
  • criminal adjudication system is timely and effective (84th),
  • correctional system is effective in reducing criminal behavior (85th),
  • criminal justice system is impartial (89th),
  • criminal justice system is free of corruption (87th),
  • criminal justice system is free of improper government influence (57th),
  • due process of law and rights of the accused (78th).

Mexico ranked behind Brazil, China, India and Russia on all seven of these subfactors with only a couple of exceptions. China ranked 97th (dead last) and Russia ranked 80th in “criminal justice system is free of improper government influence.” Also Russia ranked behind Mexico at 84th in “due process of law and rights of the accused.”

These really poor ranks indicate that virtually all aspects of the Mexican criminal justice system are in dire need of reform and improvement. Fortunately, reform is on the way. “Judicial Reform in Mexico,” (published by the Trans-Border Institute of the University of San Diego in May 2010) summarizes the four main elements of Mexico’s Judicial Reform Law, approved by Congress in 2008, as:

  1. new oral, open to the public, adversarial procedures
  2. presumption of innocence and adequate legal defense for all accused
  3. modification of police and investigatory procedures
  4. tougher measures for combating organized crime

The reforms are scheduled for implementation by 2016, but may take a bit longer.

Some states, like Chihuahua, State of México, Morelos, Oaxaca, Nuevo León and Zacatecas, have already started implementing reforms, but some other states are lagging well behind. Full implementation of all the much needed judicial reforms will take many years, perhaps decades. On the bright side, at least reforms are in the process of being implemented.

Mexico’s tourist industry plans to increase tourist expenditures

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Mar 022013

The tourism and travel industry in Mexico accounts for about 13% of GDP. Speaking last month at the XI National Tourism Forum in the resort city of Cancún, Mexico’s Tourism Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu outlined the National Tourism Strategy 2013-2018. The new plan places more emphasis on increasing the average expenditures of tourists than on boosting total visitor numbers. It aims to revive the appeal and occupancy rates of existing destinations, rather than adding new resorts, and to diversify tourist attractions through programs such as Magic Towns and routes catering to specific interests such as Mexican cuisine. Other objectives include improved airline connectivity and simplified border crossing procedures.

Tourist spending in Mexico rose to 12.72 billion dollars in 2012, 7.17% more than in 2011, but visitor numbers fell by about 1%. The World Tourism Organization ranked Mexico as the 13th most visited country in the world in 2012, a significant drop from the 10th place it had occupied for several years.

cancun-40-yearsCancún has added a major tourist attraction with the opening last year of the Mayan Museum of Cancún in the city’s Hotel Zone. The museum replaces the former Mayan Museum closed in 2005 following damage from Hurricane Wilma. Built by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) at a cost of $15 million, the museum is that organization’s largest single project for some 30 years. It houses 3500 archaeological pieces, 350 of which are on permanent display, and is expected to attract up to a million visitors a year. Adjacent to the museum is the archaeological site of San Miguelito, the most important Mayan settlement on Cancún Island, also now open to the public.

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Mexico’s population: now over 117 million and expected to peak at about 138 million

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Feb 282013

Mexico’s population in January 2013 was 117.4 million; 57.3 million males (48.8%) and 60.1million (51.2%) females according to a December 10, 2012 report by CONAPO (Consejo Nacional de Población) in Proyecciones de la población de México 2010-2050”. By January 2014 it will grow by over a million to 118.6 million. However demographic trends indicate that population growth in Mexico is declining significantly.

The birth rate is expected to fall from 19.7 births per 1,000 population in 2010 to 14.0 in 2050. As the Mexican population ages the death rate is projected to increase from 5.6 per 1,000 in 2010 to 9.2 in 2050. Consequently the annual rate of natural population growth is expected to decline from 1.41% in 2010 to 0.48% in 2050. Extrapolating the trends from the CONAPO projection suggests that death rates will surpass birth rates sometime in the by 2070s and natural population change will become negative. Of course, we must also take emigration into account.

According to the CONAPO report net emigration from Mexico was 321,000 in 2012, though some have noted that due to the Great Recession net emigration to the USA is near zero or less [Pew Research Center’s “Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero – and Perhaps Less”]. CONAPO expects net emigration to peak at about 689,000 by 2020 and then gradually decline to 590,000 by 2050. Given the current low levels of emigration to the USA and the rapid growth of the Mexican economy, some feel that these levels are rather high.

As a result of trends in birth rates, death rates and emigration, Mexico’s population growth rate is declining. Annual population growth is expected to fall below a million in 2017, below 500,000 in 2032 and below 100,000 by 2049. Extrapolating the rates in the CONAPO projection, Mexico’s population growth is expected to peak in 2053 at 137.6 million and then start to gradually decline. Of course, it is very difficult to accurately project emigration figures. If emigration is a third less than projected by CONAPO, then Mexico’s population could peak at 145 million.

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Paricutin Volcano in Mexico celebrates its 70th birthday

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Feb 202013

Today (20 February 2013) marks the 70th anniversary of the first eruption of Paricutín Volcano in the state of Michoacán in western Mexico.

The landscape around the volcano, which suddenly started erupting in the middle of a farmer’s field in 1943 and which stopped equally abruptly in 1952, is some of the finest, most easily accessible volcanic scenery in the world. A short distance northwest of Uruapan, this is a geographic “must see”, even if you can only spare a few hours.

Paricutín Volcano, 16 July 1943

Paricutín Volcano, 16 July 1943

What makes Paricutín so special is that in all of recorded history, scientists have had the opportunity to study very few completely new volcanoes in continental areas (whereas new oceanic island volcanoes are comparatively common). The first two new volcanoes formed in the Americas in historic times are just one hundred kilometers apart. The first was Jorullo, which erupted in 1759, and the second is Paricutín.

Dominating the valley where Paricutín now exists is the peak of Tancítaro, the highest point in the state of Michoacán at 3845 meters (12,615 feet), and sometimes snow-capped in winter. In 1943, the local Purépechan Indians inhabited a series of small villages and towns spread across the valley floor. The villages included Angahuan, which still exists today, Paricutín, where all 500 people lost their homes, and San Juan Parangaricutiro. The latter was once famous for hand-woven bedspreads and quilts and consequently known as San Juan de las Colchas (bedspreads). Its church, begun in 1555, had never been finished and only ever had a single tower.

On 20 February 1943, a local campesino named Dionisio Pulido was tending his crops with his wife Paula, their son and a friend. At about 4:00pm, they noticed a small crack and felt the ground shaking under their feet. While they watched, the ground rose more than 2 meters and smoke rose into the air, accompanied by whistling noises and the smell of sulfur. Sparks set fire to a nearby pine tree. Not surprisingly, they fled!

Legend has it that Dionisio first tried to smother the emerging volcano with loose rocks and afterwards was of the opinion that the volcano would never have erupted if he hadn’t plowed his field, but such reports are almost certainly pure fiction.

The volcano grew rapidly, providing onlookers, visiting vulcanologists and residents alike, with spectacular fireworks displays. The month of March was a particularly noisy time in Paricutín’s history—explosions were heard as far away as Guanajuato and ash and sand were blown as far as Mexico City and Guadalajara.

After one week, the volcano was 140 meters high, and after six weeks 165 meters.

In April 1943 there were major lava flows, originating from about 10 kilometers underground. These lavas were basaltic; their chemistry suggested temperatures inside the volcano of between 960o and 1020oC. More than 30 million metric tons of lava flowed from the volcano between April and June 1943, raising the volcano’s height to more than 400 meters before its first birthday.

In early 1944, another lava flow streamed in a gigantic arc reaching the outskirts of the town of San Juan Parangaricutiro. Fortunately, the town had already been abandoned following many earthquakes, some of which rang church bells as far away as Morelia! The lava flowed about 30 meters a day and went right through the church but, miraculously, left the main altar standing. The parts of the church which survived in “old” San Juan, including its altar, can still be visited today, though reaching them involves clambering over jagged blocks of lava.

The villagers who had abandoned the town were escorted to Uruapan for safety. Some of them later founded a new town called San Juan Nuevo. Other villagers moved away to live in Los Reyes, Uruapan, Angahuan, Morelia and Guadalajara.

Yet another lava flow buried the village of Paricutin which fortunately had also been evacuated in time. Nothing remains of this village, covered by lava which is more than 200 meters thick in places! A small cross atop the lava marks its approximate position. Besides lava, ashes and dust were also thrown out by the volcano. The ash was 1 millimeter thick in Guadalajara, 25 centimeters thick in Angahuan, and 12 meters thick near the cone. The volcano rose 410 meters above the original ground surface.

Suddenly, in February 1952, nine years after the volcano first erupted, the lava stopped flowing. In many places, plumes of hot steam still rise as fumaroles from the ground, ground that is still most distinctly warm to the touch.

Enjoying a full day at Paricutín has been made much easier since the construction of rustic tourist cabins on the edge of Angahuan village. The restaurant, which serves tasty local specialties, gives clients a panoramic view encompassing the lava and the half-buried church. A small permanent exhibition of maps, charts and photographs in one of the cabins, describing the volcano’s history and the surrounding area, was inaugurated in February 1993 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the volcano.

Horses can be hired for a trip to the church or to the more distant cone of the volcano. The latter requires an early start since the last part involves clambering up the loose ashes and cinders which comprise the cone and scrambling onto the narrow rim of the truly magnificent crater. A marvelous view can be enjoyed from atop the crater rim and only then can the full extent of the area devastated by the volcano be fully appreciated. Nothing can quite have prepared you for this startling lunar-like landscape.


This post is a lightly edited extract from my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013). Chapter 35 describes Paricutín Volcano and its surrounding area, including the fascinating indigenous village of Angahuan, in much more detail. “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” is also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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The geography of Mexico’s drug trade: new cartels involved in turf wars

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Feb 202013

As we suggested a year ago – Mexico’s drug cartels and their shifting areas of operation, a 2012 update  – it is increasingly difficult to track the areas of operation of the major drug trafficking groups in Mexico. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently added a new narcotrafficking group in Mexico, the Meza Flores family, to its list of Foreign Narcotics Kingpins. (This designation prohibits people in the USA from engaging in transactions with the named individuals or their organization, and freezes any assets the individuals or organization may have under U.S. jurisdiction).

According to the Treasury Department’s statement, the Meza Flores family began operations in about 2000 and is responsible for the distribution of considerable quantities of methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and marijuana in the USA. It is headed by Fausto Isidro Meza Flores (aka “Chapito Isidro”) and is based in the town of Guasave, in the state of Sinaloa. (Meza Flores was previously in the Juárez cartel before becoming a high ranking member of the now defunct Beltran Leyva cartel).

The Meza Flores group is a direct rival of the long-established and very powerful Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, who has been on the run since escaping from the maximum security jail in Almoloya de Juárez, near Toluca, in 2001. According to Forbes Magazine, Guzman Loera is currently Mexico’s 10th richest individual, with assets of around one billion dollars.

Mexico’s “War on Drugs” in recent years has led to a fragmentation of the major cartels. Some experts claim that as many as 80 distinct groups are now involved in drug production and trafficking. Many of these groups are small and highly localized, but this fragmentation has increased the incidence of turf wars between rival groups. These turf wars have caused extreme levels of violence in some parts of the country. Once one side is firmly in control, the violence drops.

The current federal administration has said that some 70,000 people died in Mexico between 2006 and 2012 as a result of the activities of organized crime. Recent press reports such as Jalisco: La invasión de Los Templarios claim that one on-going boundary war is along the state boundary between Michoacán and Jalisco. This conflict is between the Michoacán-based Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios, LCT) and the Jalisco-based New Generation cartel (CJNG).

The LCT is comprised largely of former members of  La Familia Michoacana (LFM), a group which is now almost defunct. Other members of LFM joined the Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel’s arch enemy. The CJNG started out as enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel.

Violence linked to this particular turf war has occurred in numerous municipalities including Jilotlán de los Dolores, Pihuamo, Mazamitla, San José de Gracia, La Barca, Atotonilco, Ayotlán, Tizapán el Alto, Tuxcueca, Jocotepec and Chapala (all in Jalisco), as well as Briseñas, Yurécuaro, Sahuayo, Marcos Castellanos, La Piedad, Zamora, Cotija de La Paz, Tepalcatepec, Los Reyes, Peribán and Apatzingán (all in Michaocán).

This is not the only turf war currently underway in Mexico. For example, further north, another recent hot spot has erupted along the Durango-Coahuila border, especially in the La Laguna area centered on the city of Torreón.

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