Mar 312012

In a few months time, Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new President. Just how does the Mexican political system work? As a build-up to the important federal elections coming shortly, this post looks at the background to Mexico’s political system and provides a quick summary of the federal level of government. A future post will look at the state and municipal levels.

The current political system in Mexico derives from the Constitution of 1917 which emerged from the Mexican Revolution. The Constitution is a sweeping document that captures the ideals of the Revolution, but also reflects three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. The Constitution is “revolutionary” in that it aggressively protects the rights of workers, peasants and their organizations. It guarantees the right to organize, an eight-hour work day, the rights of female and child workers, and the payment of a minimum wage sufficient to satisfy the necessities of life. The colonial influences are evidenced by highly codified civil law, acceptance of heavy state involvement in civic affairs and business, and the relative strength of the executive over other branches of government. Another important influence is Mexico’s 19th century history which included foreign military occupations, loss of half the national territory and several virtual dictatorships.

The government of the United Mexican States has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The executive branch is by far the most important and most powerful. The President serves a six-year term, may never be re-elected, and appoints the 18 cabinet secretaries who run their respective secretariats or ministries. The full cabinet meets only rarely. Legislation must be signed by the President to become law. Though the legislature may override a veto, the Constitution dictates that laws can only be enacted after being signed by the President. The President has the power to issue basic rules (reglamentos) independent of the legislature. In fact, most Presidents unilaterally issue more Mexican laws than are passed by the legislature.

The legislature consists of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The 128 senators serve the same six-year term as the President and cannot be re-elected. Each state and the Federal District has two senators from the party getting the most votes in that state and one from the party getting the second most votes.

These 96 senators do not represent equal numbers of constituents. Smaller states have greater representation. For example, in the State of Mexico there are about 4.7 million people per senator whereas in Baja California Sur there are only about 170,000 people per senator. The remaining 32 senators are elected by proportional representation based on the percentage of the national vote obtained by each party. These senators do not have geographical constituents.

There are 500 deputies in the Chamber. Geographic districts directly elect 300 deputies; the remaining 200 are elected by proportional representation. A party must win at least 2% of the national vote to get a deputy in the Chamber. They serve three-year terms and cannot be re-elected.

The ban against re-election means that every three years there is an entirely new Chamber of Deputies. Every six years Mexico has a new President and all new legislators. The ban on re-election diminishes the continuity as well as the overall experience and expertise of Mexican government at all levels.

The judiciary is divided into federal courts and state courts. The federal courts have jurisdiction over constitutional issues, most civil cases (contracts, labor issues, banking and commerce) as well as major felonies (bank robberies, kidnapping), except murder. State courts handle murders, divorces and minor felonies. The Supreme Court consists of 26 judges, selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Legally, they serve for life but actually submit their resignation to the new President every six years. Below the Supreme Court are four chambers of judges dealing with criminal, civil, labor and administrative issues. There are 16 federal circuit courts and 68 district courts.

The eruption of El Chichón volcano in 1982

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The eruption of El Chichón volcano in 1982
Mar 282012

Not all volcanoes give any warning of impending activity. Exactly thirty years ago, just before midnight 28/29 March 1982, the El Chichón volcano in Chiapas erupted completely without warning and with unexpected fury.  Two further eruptions followed in early April. The lack of warning caused heavy loss of life among local villagers who had been unable to evacuate their villages. About 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Palenque covered in ash following the eruption of El Chichón

Palenque covered in ash following the eruption of El Chichón. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Ash from El Chichón fell over a wide area of southern Mexico. The nearby Mayan archaeological site of Palenque (set on the edge of what is normally a luxuriant, tropical-green jungle) was covered in ash (see photo above).

Concerned about the potential for the ash to combine with rainfall and form an acidic solution that might erase delicate and intricately carved stones, workers at the site engaged in a major clean up, even before all the ash had stopped falling. The second photo (below) shows a worker on top of one of Palenque’s distinctive roof combs sweeping the recently-fallen ash off the structure.

Sweeping ash off Palenque following the eruption of El Chichón

Sweeping ash off Palenque following the eruption of El Chichón. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Vulcanologists later worked out that the last previous eruption of El Chichón had been 1200 years earlier. The eruption “left behind a brooding, sulfuric, acidic lake that formed when the dome collapsed into a crater and filled with water.”

Aztec glyph for a “hill that smokes”

El Chichón forced more than 7 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20 million tons of particulate material into the stratosphere. The resultant cloud of volcanic gases circled the Earth in three weeks and was still dissipating three years later. It was expected that the additional particulates in the atmosphere would reduce the solar radiation reaching the earth and cause the following summer to be cooler than usual. However, in an unlikely coincidence, an El Niño event began that same year, negating any significant cooling effect from the volcano’s particulates.

The El Chichón eruption was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, exceeded only by the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in terms of the amount of volcanic gases and particulates entering the stratosphere. Ash fell over a wide area, from Campeche to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas.

By the time the eruption was over, the volcano, whose summit had been 1260 m (4134 ft) prior to the eruption, had lost 200 m in height. The Chiapanecan Volcanic Arc, which includes El Chichón, falls outside Mexico’s Volcanic Axis (the location of almost all Mexico’s volcanoes) and is thought to be related to the subduction of the edge of the Cocos Plate underneath the North American plate.

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A matter of scale: Mexico compared to Spain

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Mar 262012

Scale matters, especially when two countries or regions are going to be compared. A case in point is depicted on this Mexican airmail stamp from 1977 issued to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain. Mexico had broken off relations with Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Francisco Franco gained control. Following that war, more than 30,000 Spaniards sought refuge in Mexico, giving a significant boost to the country’s entrepreneurs. It took until 28 March 1977 for diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain to be restored.

The outline maps on the stamp show Mexico and Spain as having approximately the same area. Presumably this was to ensure that the stamp would be seen as politically-correct, even if not spatially-correct, and would make the two countries look like equal partners. In real life, or on any equal-area map projection,  Mexico (almost 2 million square kilometers) is about four times as large as Spain (close to 50,000  square kilometers).

If the maps were drawn proportional to population, then Mexico would be more than twice as large, since its population of about 112 million (2010) is more than double that of Spain (48 million in the same year). This difference is widening with the years, since Spain’s population growth rate has fallen to about 0.6%/year, while Mexico’s (which has also fallen) remains significantly higher at about 1.1%/year.

Suburbia in Mexico: Alejandro Cartagena’s images of Monterrey

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Mar 242012

What do Mexican suburbs look like? What is their function? As the country’s towns and cities continue to expand, new suburbs appear on their outer edge. Some are gated communities, generally aimed at high income families; these suburbs sometimes include private schools and sports clubs. Other suburbs offer smaller homes aimed at low-income families.

Photographer Alejandro Cartagena lives in the Monterrey Metropolitan Area, which includes nine different municipalities in the state of Nuevo León: Monterrey, Guadalupe, San Nicolás, San Pedro, Santa Catarina, Escobedo, Apodaca, García and Juárez.

Cartagena spent years exploring the edge of the city to document the manifestations of “suburbia mexicana” through photographs. The suburbs he depicts are mainly low-income suburbs, some still being constructed. Cartagena recognized that change was happening at a very rapid pace, and often by developers with more lust for profit than desire to improve the local community. Since 2001, more than 300,000 new homes have been built in the Monterrey Metropolitan Area. Many suburbs were badly planned, as some of Cartagena’s photos clearly reveal. Considerations of roads, parks and public transport are often ignored in the decision-making of these developers.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena; all rights reserved. Image from "suburbia mexicana"; reproduced by kind permission.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena. Image from "suburbia mexicana". Reproduced by kind permission.

“Suburbia mexicana” includes five series of images, each briefly described below. For fuller descriptions of Cartagena’s ideas, please use the links from the title of each series to visit his relevant section of his website:

Fragmented Cities explores what the homes look like, as if being photographed for a real estate brochure.

Lost Rivers looks at the “environmental problems that stem from excessive urban and suburban development such as dried up and polluted rivers and streams.”

The Other Distance attempts to “connect the wealthy with the new-middle and low class urbanization models” by looking at San Pedro Garza García, which is one of the richest municipalities in Mexico, and easily the wealthiest part of the Monterrey Metro Area. Quoting geographer David Harvey on the “inter-connectivity between urbanization and capital accumulation”, Cartagena explores the economic contrasts that have created two distinct spaces (based on wealth), one that lacks specific “social cohesion space” such as parks, not designed to take into account “infrastructure, hospitals or education centers”, and one occupied by the wealthy sectors of society where such things are considered their “right”. Cartagena recognizes that both these spaces have an interdependent symbiotic relationship.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena; all rights reserved. Image from "suburbia mexicana"; reproduced by kind permission.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena. Image from "suburbia mexicana". Reproduced by kind permission.

Urban Holes depicts abandoned spaces in downtown Monterrey, so “highly overpriced by market speculation” that “investors look to un-urbanized land to create new developments that are lacking all kinds of infrastructure”.

The People of Suburbia, the final section, is based on a return to some of the areas photographed previously, including the municipality of Juárez, where urbanization has led to the population tripling since 2002. It is a “visual study of the unending capitalist endeavor of urban growth”.

In Cartagena’s own words, the photos of “suburbia mexicana” “depict a global issue from a local perspective” and one his intentions is “to point out the struggle our contemporary world faces between the ideals of capitalism and the striving and desire for fairer and more equal cities in which to live.” As such, this splendid collection of photographs certainly deserves the widest possible audience.

If you like Alejandro Cartagena’s work, you may like to know that he has published a book of “suburbia mexicana”, available via his website.

For more details about the Monterrey Metropolitan Area, see this 2008 paper by Dr. Peter Ward:

Mar 222012

Mexico’s Magic Town (Pueblo Mágico) designation is given to inland destinations that offer a complementary tourism based on historic and cultural attributes. Between them, Magic Towns welcomed 2.3 million tourists in 2011. Mexico’s federal Tourism Secretariat has announced there will be 52 Magic Towns by 2012, when the promotional program is due to end. Mexico recently added two more towns, bringing the current total to 50 Magic Towns. The latest two additions are:

Magic Town #49: Sombrerete  (Zacatecas)

Fine stonework in Sombrerete

Fine stonework in Sombrerete. Photo: Tony Burton.

The town of Sombrerete (population about 20,000) is  a former mining center, located mid-way between the cities of Durango and Zacatecas. Early explorers in this area in the 1550s are said to have discovered its mineral riches by accident, when they found molten silver congealing in the dying embers of their campfire! Sombrerete, founded in about 1555, was named for a nearby sombrero-shaped hill, whose shape resembled the typical three-cornered Spanish hat worn in the sixteenth century.

Silver mining completely transformed the local landscape. Sombrerete become a wealthy mining town, its opulence transformed into an abundance of fine buildings. As ore deposits became harder to reach, the town fell into a lengthy decline. Its many fine buildings survived to tell their tale and are an important tourist asset today. Sombrerete certainly deserves its designation as one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns”.

Close to Sombrerete is the Sierra de Los Organos National Park, sometimes referred to as Valley of the Giants. This attractive area of meadows, woodland and cacti is overlooked by rocky crags with columnar basalt pillars (resembling organ pipes) and numerous precariously-balanced blocks. Several movies starring John Wayne were shot here, and the actor donated picnic tables and barbecues so that others might also enjoy this fascinating scenery.

Magic Town #50 Mineral de Pozos (Guanajuato)

Mineral de Pozos, in the state of Guanajuato, is another former mining community. Jesuits seeking mineral riches to finance their spiritual campaigns began mining here in 1595 but the mines proved unprofitable. The workings were abandoned until towards the end of the nineteenth century when a new influx of miners arrived, eager to try their luck. In 1895, with a population close to 60,000 and delusions of golden grandeur awaiting their picks and shovels, they temporarily rechristened their small, dusty home Ciudad Porfirio Díaz, in honor of Mexico’s then president. Today, Pozos, originally founded as a military garrison in 1576, is a ghost town, partially revived in recent years as it seeks to become an attractive diversion for “cultural, adventure, religious and family tourism”.

Given the extraordinary number of interesting and historic settlements in Mexico, I find it disappointing that some of the recent choices for inclusion on the Magic Towns list (such as Mineral de Pozos) do not appear to be based on an objective assessment of the cultural, historic, and ecological merits of particular places. Pozos is an interesting place, but hardly in the same league as most other Magic Towns. Perhaps it is just as well that the list is scheduled to end shortly!

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Major earthquake strikes Guerrero and Oaxaca states (20 March 2011)

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Mar 202012

Given its strength (almost the same as the 1985 Mexico City earthquake), this latest earthquake could have been so much worse… but it appears that central Mexico escaped with only relatively minor damage.

The earthquake happened 12:02 p.m. local time at a depth of about 10 km (6 miles), some 200 km (120 mi) east of the resort city and was felt as far away as Mexico City. The epicenter was close to the settlement of Ometepec, roughly midway between Acapulco and Oaxaca City.

The USGS originally recorded the earthquake as a 7.6, but has since downgraded the magnitude to 7.4.

Mexican sources say the earthquake lasted 2-3 minutes. Several significant aftershocks have been recorded since. The shaking was felt in Guerrero, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Estado de Mexico, the Federal District and as far as Veracruz.

Main impacts reported so far:

  • No deaths have yet been reported, but 7 people were injured as a direct result of the earthquake. Perhaps the luckiest to survive was the driver whose vehicle was crushed by debris when part of a pedestrian overpass collapsed (see image):
  • 800 houses, in several municipalities, are reported damaged. The major damage is in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero. The municipalities affected include Ometepec, Tlacoachistlahuaca, Xochistlahuaca, Cuajinicuilapa, Igualapa, Azoyú and San Luis Acatlán.
  • Personnel from Mexico’s armed services have established temporary shelters to house those that lost homes or who are considered at risk from aftershocks. Many families have opted not to return to their homes to sleep, fearing further quakes.
  • 2.5 million people, mainly in central Mexico, lost electricity, but most had their power restored within hours.
  • The earthquake triggered several small landslides on highways in Oaxaca. In addition, traffic flow was briefly interrupted on the Acapulco-Cuernavaca highway, at kilometer 251.
  • Telephone service (including cell phone service) was briefly interrupted in several areas, while technicians carried out safety checks. Ay one point, more than 40,000 technicians were on standby.
  • Water provision. The Chalco-Xochimilco aqueduct was damaged, affecting about 100,000 people who live in the Tláhuac district of Mexico City. Elsewhere, 200,000 residents of the Iztapalapa district had their water supply interrupted due to damage to the La Caldera aqueduct. In both cases, repairs are expected to be completed within 48 hours.
  • School classes were suspended for the afternoon session in several places, including Acapulco, Igualapa, Cuajinicuilapa, Xochistlahuaca, Azuoyú, San Luis Zacatlán andOmetepec, and in Oaxaca City.
  • In Mexico City, the seismic alarm system functioned and gave residents a few seconds warning before the quake struck. In the words of one Twitter user (@RodrigoEBR) “FOR THE RECORD: The Mexico City earthquake early warning system was activated just seconds before the 7.6 quake”.
  • Shares in Cemex, Mexico’s multinational cement manufacturer, rose almost 4% on the day in late trading, as speculators bet on increased demand for cement and construction materials in the wake of the earthquake.

The USGS collects first-hand reports to map intensity:

  • Acapulco earthquake intensity map [maps tab]

This is the the intensity map several hours after the event:

Earthquake update [28 March 2012]

According to the latest press reports, more than 32,000 homes and 1,057 schools in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero sustained some damage as a result of the 20 March 2012 earthquake. This figure includes 30 schools in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero that will need to be completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch.

As of 26 March the area had experienced more than 200 aftershocks of Richter scale 3 or greater.

The insurance industry expects claims from the earthqauke to reach about 5.6 billion pesos [about US $ 440 million], with most claims expected from policy holders living in the Guerrero, Oaxaca, the Federal District, Puebla and Morelos.

Damage to Line A of Mexico City's metro following 20 March 2012 earthquake

Damage to Mexico City metro Line A after 20 March 2012 earthquake

Damage in Mexico City included a section of line A of the city’s metro network (see image), where 100 meters of track between Santa Martha and Acatitla stations were buckled and have now been replaced.

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The world’s richest man in 2011 and other Mexican billionaires

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The world’s richest man in 2011 and other Mexican billionaires
Mar 192012

The Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest individuals in 2011 consists of more than 1500 individuals, each with a wealth of one billion dollars or more. Eleven Mexicans (all men, but one more than last year) made the list. The eleven richest Mexicans are:

World rank / Name / Estimated wealth according to Forbes / Main business interests

#1 Carlos Slim Helú and family, 69.0 billion dollars, making him the richest man in the world. Fixed line telephone provider Telmex, cell phone provider América Móvil, Grupo Carso, Inbursa. [Slim Helú stays in top spot]

#37 Ricardo Salinas Pliego and family, 17.4 billion dollars. Television company Televisón Azteca, domestic appliance store Elektra, bank Banco Azteca, and cell phone company Iusacell [Salinas Pliego gained 26 places in the ranking]

#38 Alberto Bailleres and family, 16.5 billion dollars. Mining giant Peñoles, department store El Palacio de Hierro and Grupo Profuturo [almost doubled his wealth in 2011, up 44 places]

#72 Germán Larrea Mota Velasco and family, 14.2 billion dollars. Grupo México – mining for copper and other minerals

#276 Jerónimo Arango and family, 4 billion dollars. Founder of Aurrerá supermarket chain and Grupo Cifra which controlled VIPS and El Portón restaurant chains, Suburbia department stores and tourist developments in Baja California Peninsula and Acapulco

#634 Emilio Azcárraga, 2.0 billion dollars. Television and media conglomerate Televisa,and Nextel cell phones

#683 Roberto Gonzalez Barrera 1.9 billion dollars. Banking and tortillas

#913 Carlos Hank Rhon & family, 1.4 billion dollars. Banking

#960 Roberto Hernández, 1.3 billion dollars. Banker, one of main shareholders of Citigroup, and tourist developments in the Yucatán Peninsula

#1153 (equal) Alfredo Harp Helú and family, 1 billion dollars. Shareholder in Citibank, telecommunications firm Avantel

#1153 (equal) Joaquín Guzmán Loera (aka “El Chapo”), 1 billion dollars. Mexico’s most wanted man, head of the Sinaloa drugs cartel, the main supplier of cocaine to the US market

The combined total wealth of these eleven individuals is a staggering 129.7 billion dollars (compared to the billionaires’ total of 90.3 billion dollars in 2010). The 2011 figure is equivalent to more than 6% of Mexico’s GDP.

The average earnings of Mexican workers registered in IMSS (Mexico’s Social Security Institute) is about 230 pesos a day or $6,600 (dollars) a year. The combined wealth of Mexico’s eleven richest individuals is therefore equivalent to the total annual salaries of 19.65 million Mexicans earning this average salary! [Last year, the combined wealth of Mexican billionaires was equivalent to “only” 14.3 million Mexicans earning the then average salary.]

Clearly, there are a handful of extremely wealthy individuals living in Mexico, alongside millions of Mexicans who are living at or below the poverty line. These income disparities have existed for a very long time, and are examined in detail in chapter 14 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. That chapter also analyzes the spatial patterns of wealth in Mexico, and discusses whether the gap between rich and poor has widened or narrowed in recent years.

Chapter 29 discusses Gender inequities in Mexico and  Oportunidades, a poverty reduction program (both links are to excerpts from that chapter).

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Mexico has more World Heritage sites than any other country in the Americas

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Mar 172012

The status of World Heritage site is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) denomination. The status is conferred on selected sites under the terms of “The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, adopted at UNESCO’s 17th General Conference in November 1972 and subsequently ratified by 189 member states.

Nations were invited to submit their proposals for any cultural or natural sites that they considered “of outstanding universal value”, and therefore eligible for inclusion on the World Heritage list. All proposals have to be approved by a special UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

The attraction of having a site classified as a World Heritage site is that it affords extra possibilities for obtaining technical co-operation in matters relating to conservation, for international assistance for research, training and equipment, and for emergency assistance in the event of damage due to specific natural or man-made disasters. All these sites are also valuable as cultural or environmental tourism destinations.

The list was first published in 1978, at which time it mainly featured European sites. Since then, regular additions have been made. As of March 2012, the list includes 936 locations in 153 member states. Of these sites, 725 are considered to have cultural significance, 183 to have natural importance and there are also 28 which share both cultural and natural value.

Mexico has 31 sites on the list, considerably more than any other country in the Americas. For example, the U.S. has 20 (together with a share of a 21st that straddles the border with Canada), Brazil 17 (as well as one jointly held with Argentina), Canada 14 (plus the joint U.S.-Canada site) and Peru 11.

Worldwide, only five countries have more World Heritage sites than Mexico. Four of these countries are in Europe: Italy, Spain, Germany and France. The other country is China.

Mexico’s existing World Heritage sites

Date added to list  – Name of site (state in brackets)

1987 Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve (Quintana Roo)
1987 Pre-Hispanic city and national Park of Palenque (Chiapas)
1987 Historic Center of Mexico City and Xochimilco (Mexico D.F.)
1987 Pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan (State of Mexico)
1987 Historic Centre of Oaxaca and archaeological site of Monte Alban(Oaxaca)
1987 Historic Centre of Puebla (Puebla)
1988 Historic town of Guanajuato and Adjacent Mines (Guanajuato)
1988 Pre-Hispanic city of Chichen-Itza (Yucatán)
1991 Historic Centre of Morelia (Michoacán)
1992 Pre-Hispanic city of El Tajin (Veracruz)
1993 Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino (Baja California)
1993 Historic Centre of Zacatecas (Zacatecas)
1993 Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco (Baja California)
1994 Earliest 16th-Century monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl (Morelos)
1996 Prehispanic town of Uxmal (Yucatán)
1996 Historic Monuments, Zone of Querétaro (Querétaro)
1997 Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara (Jalisco)
1998 Historic Monuments, Zone of Tlacotalpan (Veracruz)
1998 Archeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes (Chihuahua)
1999 Historic fortified town of Campeche (Campeche)
1999 Archaeological Monuments, Zone of Xochicalco (Morelos)
2002 Ancient Maya City and biosphere reserve of Calakmul (Campeche)
2003 Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda (Querétaro)
2004 House and Studio of Luis Barragán (in Mexico City)
2005 Islands and protected areas of the Gulf of California
2006 Agave landscape and old tequila-making facilities in Amatitán, Arenal and Tequila (Jalisco)
2007 Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) (Mexico City)
2008 Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Michoacán and State of México)
2008 San Miguel de Allende and the Sanctuary of Jesús de Nazareno de Atotonilco (Guanajuato)
2010 Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the 2,900 kilometer historic route linking Mexico City to Santa Fe in New Mexico
2010 Prehistoric caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca

Mexico’s proposed World Heritage sites:

Mexico has formally proposed numerous additional sites for World Heritage Status. The applications are coordinated by the National Anthropology and History Institute (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), better known by its Spanish acronym INAH. Proposals include:

1.  Historic town of San Sebastián del Oeste (Jalisco)
2. Tule (ahuehuete) tree of Santa María del Tule (Oaxaca)
3. Zempoala aqueduct, a project of Padre Tembleque (Hidalgo and State of Mexico)
4. Monterrey’s old industrial facilities, including a foundry, brewery and glassworks (Nuevo León)
5. The Aguascalientes railroad station and residential complex (Aguascalientes)
6. The Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (Mexico D.F.)
7. Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe and Félix Candela’s industrial buildings, including the offices of Bacardí y Compañía (State of Mexico)
8. Historic city of San Luis Potosí (San Luis Potosí)
9. Chapultepec Woods, Hill and Castle (Mexico D.F.)
10. Historic town of Alamos (Sonora)
11. Pre-Hispanic city of Cantona (Puebla)
12. The church of Santa Prisca in Taxco (Guerrero)
13. The former Jesuit college in Tepotzotlán (State of Mexico)
14. The churches of the Zoque province (Chiapas)
15. The pre-Hispanic city of Chicomostoc-La Quemada (Zacatecas)
16. Archaeological monuments, zone of Mitla (Oaxaca)
17. Cuatrociénegas flora and fauna reserve (Coahuila)
18. Franciscan convent and Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral in Tlaxcala (Tlaxcala)
19. Historical town of the Royal Mines of Cosala (formerly known as the Royal of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cosala) (Sinaloa)
20. Huichol Route used by Huichol Indians through their sacred sites to Huiricuta (San Luis Potosí) (sometimes spelt as Wirikuta)
21. The former textile factory La Constancia Mexicana and its housing area (Puebla)
22. The Lacan-Tún—Usumacinta region (Chiapas)
23. The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve(offshore in Quintana Roo)
24. The El Pinacate and the Great Altar Desert Biosphere Reserve (Sonora)
25. The Selva El Ocote Biosphere Reserve (Chiapas)
26. Sotáno del Barro, a 450-meter-deep sinkhole (Querétaro)
27. Tecoaque archaeological site (Tlaxcala)
38. Valle des Cierges, including Montevideo Canyon (Baja California)

Not all sites are accepted. For instance, Mexico’s rejections include the Lake Pátzcuaro region, in the state of Michoacán, and the El Triunfo nature reserve.

Mexicans are justly proud of their nation’s history and culture, and have always been prepared to share them with visitors. By getting so many locations on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, the country is reaffirming its commitment to trying to ensure that its cultural and natural treasures are well protected for future generations. Any of the places mentioned in this article is well worth visiting and exploring. In some cases, it is possible to construct fascinating “itineraries” combining several of the sites in a single trip.

Bear in mind, though, that there are also numerous attractions not yet listed as World Heritage sites that probably deserve to be included in the future. For starters, how about Paricutin Volcano, one of only a handful of new volcanoes to appear on land in historic times? Or how about the Copper Canyon region, with its grandiose scenery and indigenous Tarahumar population?

For more information:

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How does money laundering work, and what is being done about it?

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Mar 152012

How is drugs money laundered?

Drug funds have allegedly financed hotels, car dealerships, bus companies, airlines, casinos, beauty salons, skyscrapers and restaurants, as well as the lavish lifestyles of individual cartel members who acquire gold jewelry, expensive cars, vehicles, yachts and planes.

Trade-based laundering” is on the rise. Drug cartels are reported to be increasingly using regular cross-border trade to launder their ill-gotten gains. Profits from the sale of drugs in the USA and elsewhere are used to purchase truckloads of goods such as fruit, toys and fabric, which are then sent south to Mexico to be sold for pesos. This cross-border trade effectively changes US dollars into pesos with few questions being asked.

In a variation on the theme, the dollars are used to buy things such as toys or fabric from a third country such as China. The goods are then exported to Mexico and resold. The net effect is the same: dollars become pesos, ready to help pay for the next shipments of drugs. Trade-based laundering is hidden in the massive regular trade-flows between Mexico and the USA which total almost 400 billion dollars a year. Authorities always seem to be one step behind the cartels, partly because, as this LA Times article points out, cartel bosses are “among the world’s most expert transnational entrepreneurs”. Indeed, the sheer scale of the drug money flows threatens to overwhelm Mexico’s police and security forces.

Drug money is being transferred via a variety of means, from cash transfers (formal or informal) and deposits in bank accounts to the purchase of goods and services (including pirated merchandise).

How can money laundering be reduced?

In recent years, Mexican authorities have focused more attention on chasing the money involved in the drugs trade. Government officials claim that more than $50 billion in drugs money is laundered each year, more than the value of Mexico’s oil exports and equivalent to 3% of GDP. Mexico’s laws are barely keeping up with the ingenuity of money launderers, and convictions for money-laundering are rare.

What has Mexico done to try and prevent money laundering? There are now strict limits on the use of US dollars in Mexico, and on cash deposits into bank accounts. The latest tightening of the rules extends the reporting of higher value US dollar transactions to all real estate offices, car dealerships, betting parlors, art galleries and public notaries. Any purchases using cash for items such as vehicles costing over about $14,000, and for real estate over about $70,000 are now automatically reported to federal authorities.

As Mexico tightens its accountancy rules, drug gangs may have to keep more of their funds in the USA or go elsewhere. Mexico is becoming a much less friendly place for the drug cartels’ informal “retirement funds”.

Map of Oaxaca state, with an introduction to its geography

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Mar 122012

The state of Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state, with an area of  93,793 square kilometers (4.8% of the national total) and Mexico’s tenth most populous state, with 3.8 million inhabitants in 2010.

The state has considerable variety in terms of relief, climate and natural vegetation, and has about 570 km of shoreline bordering the Pacific Ocean. Oaxaca City, the centrally located state capital, is an important city for tourism as are three towns on the coast—Puerto Angel, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.

The eastern part of Oaxaca state is part of the low-lying Isthmus of Tehuantepec, once considered as an alternative location to Panama for a trans-continental canal. In recent years, the Tehuantepec area has received massive investments in wind power, with several major wind farms already operational and more on the drawing board.

Map of Oaxaca state, Mexico. Copyright Tony Burton;

Map of Oaxaca state, Mexico. Copyright Tony Burton; all rights reserved. Click map to enlarge

Oaxaca state state has greater linguistic and cultural diversity than any other state in Mexico. According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, more than 1.5 million people in Oaxaca live in a home where at least one of the residents either speaks an indigenous language or considers themselves indigenous (even if they do not speak an indigenous language).

About one million inhabitants of Oaxaca, 35% of the state’s total population, speak one or more indigenous language. The largest indigenous linguistic groups in the state include about 350,000 Zapotec, 230,000 Mixtec, 165,000 Mazatec, 100,000 Chinantec, 100,000 Mixe, and 40,000 Chatino.

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