Friday, January 30, 2015

Protests on the road to nowhere

Driving back from two weeks at the beach with our dowager mutt Gladys, Stew and I were trapped in a seven-hour live demonstration of the Mexican art of futile political protest: A lot of sound and fury—perhaps justified—but ultimately signifying very little except that our trip to our friends’ place in the beautiful colonial town of Pátzcuaro took eleven instead of four hours.  

The beach resort of Barra de Potosí, located twenty minutes south of Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast, is located in the state of Guerrero, where forty-three students were massacred and their bodies incinerated four months ago under still murky circumstances. This horror detonated a national uproar that has been slow to fade. The latest theory is that the drug gang that carried out the executions confused the students for members of a rival gang.

Easy rider: Protesters? What protesters?
During the entire trip Gladys remained imperturbable but Stew and I were not quite as calm as news reels quietly looped in our minds about much-dreaded bandidos, narco-gangs and assorted miscreants roaming the Mexican roadways—the horror of such stories often enhanced by the rumor mill among jittery gringos in San Miguel.

“Nothing to worry about,” Tito, the cheerful and wiry maintenance guy at the house where we stayed, told me as we packed to head home. The killings occurred about 190 kilometers from Zihuatanejo, he said, and that’s far away. Except that Tito also had told me that a storm surge last year, featuring fifteen- to twenty-foot waves that swallowed some beachfront palapa restaurants, had not been a big deal. Either he's a very calm guy or a practitioner of the old Mexican habit of minimizing or denying bad news. 

Indeed nothing happened during our two-week stay at the beach or during our drive back until we hit the third or fourth toll booth in the neighboring state of Michoacán, which has its own sordid history of drug-related violence. A little less than two years ago seven decapitated bodies, each sitting on plastic chairs, were found neatly arranged around a traffic circle in the town of Uruapan in Michoacán—perfectly timed to coincide with our arrival a day later for an annual arts-and-crafts market and fair. 

But shortly after entering Michoacán we discovered that the first two toll booths on the highway had been taken over a giddy bunch of students who were collecting their own tolls in slotted coffee cans—the toll-takers apparently went home—and handing out flyers explaining the reasons for the commotion.

We'd run into that before driving in Mexico, as well as the unnerving sight of police officers leaning against their cars, their arms crossed, silently watching the ad hoc circus performing just beyond their noses. Tolls in Mexico’s excellent roads are pricey, anywhere from the equivalent of three to twenty dollars, so if nothing else these protests are not nickle-and-dime events for either the highway authorities or the protesters.

Street protests by mainline organizations, but also loony-tunes along the lines of the Union of Maoist Students or some such, are an almost permanent part of political discourse in Mexico, particularly in the capital. If you sit long enough in the central Zócalo sipping a cappuccino a protest march will soon go by. 

Last November, in fact, we ran into an enormous march that went on for several hours, up one of the city's main boulevards, protesting the killing of the forty-three students. That was a huge event as it befitted the horror in Guerrero

The expressway was completely blocked when we approached the third toll in Michoacán, except for truckloads of cheering students, some waving placards, aboard pick-ups going in the opposite direction. Two ambulances and one federal police truck with one helmeted soldier standing on the bed clutching a machine gun raced in the opposite direction too. 

I asked people walking by but no one had any idea what was going on except that the highway was completely blocked.  No one seemed very excited or upset either.

About an hour later cars started breaking loose from the line and racing ahead as if someone had found an escape route or a way around the jam. Instead, cars piled up at the toll plaza where the lanes to Pátzcuaro were completely blocked.

Stew grumbled that if such nonsense took place somewhere say, in Texas, irate motorists packing heat—probably most of them—would have pulled out their weapons and started shooting over the heads of whoever was blocking traffic. I doubt guns would have improved this situation though, or that police in the U.S. would have allowed anyone to close off a major tollway in the first place.

The ice cream truck cometh, and just in time.
But we're not in the U.S. Here, people walked around the toll plaza, visited the newly installed restrooms, bought snacks from walking vendors, walked their dogs and exchanged theories as to what was going on. It resembled an after-dinner walkabout in a small town.

The young driver an ice cream truck walked around too, peddling pints of vanilla ice cream for the distress price of twenty pesos, or about $1.35. Gladys enjoyed three tablespoons of ice cream and went back to sleep.

We called our friends in Pátzcuaro who suggested a Plan B: Go back on the tollway to Uruapan and then take the toll-free back entrance to town.

Five hours after we'd left the beach the detour seemed like a delightful surprise. The recently resurfaced road snaked through a pine forest vaguely reminiscent of Switzerland, or at least Wisconsin. Even the houses, with steeply pitched roofs of red corrugated zinc, seemed un-Mexican. The only local touch were occasional patches of banana trees with their usual droopy, wind-torn leaves.

Yodeling in Mexico: Chalet-type house similar
to what we found on the road to Pátzcuaro.
As we climbed from beach-level to approximately seven thousand feet, the temperatures dropped from 95 to 50 degrees. Smells went from sea-briny to forest-piney. Road signs pointed to towns with impenetrable names like Parangaricutiro, Tzintsuntzan and Purechecuaro.

For the first half hour Stew and I forgot the inconvenience and marveled at our good fortune to be suddenly embraced by such exotic beauty.

Our joy ride came to an end though just as the sun was setting, and the traffic stopped again, this time for good. Stew tried to call our friends to ask for a Plan C, but there was no cell phone or internet service for sending emails.

The end of the road: When we stopped the car we found next to us
this roadside memorial to two twenty-year-old guys who were
killed in a car accident on that spot in 2012.
We stopped the car by a roadside memorial where two twenty-year-olds had been killed in a traffic accident. There was nothing else to do but to sit in the car, sip Coke from our cooler and later—what else?—take Gladys for yet another walk, or “spin” as Stew calls them.

Admiring the combination of cool weather, the silence and extraordinary night spectacle, Stew and I agreed this was not an altogether bad place to be stuck. Better than a Florida traffic jam on a muggy day or skidding through mire of slush and salt on a wintry Chicago road.

All the cars turned off their engines and lights, and a cover of darkness and silence enveloped the caravan of stalled vehicles. 

I got out to gaze at a beautiful starry sky, its twinkling exaggerated by the lack of artificial or even natural light from the moon, which was only a sliver. Stew and I reminisced about a desert night in Morocco when the stars also were equally numerous and bright and also so close they seemed almost within our reach. 

Except, where were the cops or any sign of government authority? Or are we being held hostage by a bunch of Mexican stoners celebrating their version of Easter week in Florida?

Actually at the first “liberated” toll booth we had been given a brief flier, alleging that the forty-three students were still alive; that the Mexican army was complicit in the massacre—whoever the victims were; that the version of the attorney general was completely fabricated and pleading with the drivers to not be indifferent to the sorrow of the students’ parents.

Bring back the students alive and punish the material and intellectual assassins!

Out with (Mexican President) Peña Nieto!

There is scant evidence, from what I've read, that the students are still alive. Far more tragically, I doubt the Mexican government is ever going to pin down with certainty who murdered these forty-three people, students or whoever they were.

The mayor of a town near the massacre and his wife, who allegedly ordered the killings, are on sabbatical at a Mexico City prison, but don’t wait for a formal trial to bring out the facts much less lead to appropriate sentencing. Certainly don’t wait for Peña Nieto to resign over his administration’s bumbling handling of this crime.

To use a Bill Clinton-ism, I can feel these kids’ pain—and rage—but comparable or far worse massacres have taken place in Mexico during the past several years: Hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez, mass graves along the border and other horrors that remain unsolved and unpunished.

Indeed, their day of euphoric and perhaps empowering protests barely registered with the media. Later someone explained that road closings, toll booth-taking, and hijacking of private buses to transport protesters to their destinations were not at all unusual. What we experienced was not really news. 

Bonfires of futility: After a day of protests by blocking traffic,
celebration around a bonfire. 
About nine o’clock on Friday night we finally got through the final roadblock that the students had lifted thirty minutes before. Huge bonfires were lit on both sides of the road. One Federal police vehicle stopped briefly and sped off, as if the officers didn’t want to know what was going on.

We were finally able to talk with our friends in Pátzcuaro who were understandably worried about our whereabouts, and arrived at their home forty-five minutes later. 

After a cautious round of butt-sniffing greeting with out friends’ two dogs, Maggie and Lucy, Gladys ate, went out for a walk and directly to sleep. Not much later, we also had dinner and followed Gladys' lead into the sack.

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1 comment:

  1. I managed to share a bit of that pain on our loop tour of Mexico. Tree toll booths had been "liberated" -- in the parlance of ideological thievery. I often wonder if these protests do anything other than to lose sympathy for the protestors' cause. They obviously think it makes a difference. Or maybe they don't really care whether it does or not. Perhaps, it is simply the political equivalent of masturbation.

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