Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The poor will always be with us, but not here

As soon as you set foot in this sanctuary of privilege, you know this is no public park where the hoi-polloi would gather on a hot Sunday afternoon, to spread old blankets on the grass, drink Coronas and cook ribs on a beat-up Weber grill.

At the end of a five- or six-kilometer dirt road, you run into the first of two security gates, where guards with clipboards ask for your name, if you have reservations, and at which one of the three restaurants, jot down your car's license plate and probably take your picture with one of several cameras mounted here and there.
Someone's idea of a weekend getaway place. 

Then you proceed to the second security gate, with a terse sign  warning,  "No bodyguards (escoltas) allowed on premises." Indeed, a couple of drivers or escoltas leaned against gleaming white Chevy Suburbans outside the gate, smoking, chatting and waiting the return of their patrones.

Once inside San Lucas Vineyards, only 10 or 12 miles from our ranch, you enter the rarefied world of the Mexican upper classes, the really rich. At first, the grounds strike you as a Potemkin version of Tuscany, except the massive stone mansions are not make-believe, and neither are the other accouterments that decorate this playground, such as man-made lagoons surrounded by stately pampas grasses and  stocked with fish, and a chapel that looks 200 years old even though it probably was built no more than five or six years ago. There are naturally cooled wine cellars, half-buried in the ground, plus hundreds acres of grapevines, meticulously trussed on wire supports, with irrigation hoses running at their feet. CDMX license plates dominated the parking lot.

A small stocked pond for fishing.
There's nothing sinister about the place, once you get used to it. It's just the sudden leap across the chasm of Mexico's economic inequality and class divisions, from the ramshackle towns that surround our ranch to the opulence of this faux Tuscany, can leave you a bit breathless. It's like riding the elevator of a 100-story building, from the basement to the penthouse, in five seconds flat.

San Lucas is but one of a dozen or so vineyards that have sprouted on the periphery of San Miguel, along with dozens of subdivisions, offering everything from ticky-tacky townhouses crammed next to one another like dominoes, to multi-million dollar mansions. There are two vineyards visible from our ranch, and several larger ones on the other side of San Miguel, on the road to Dolores Hidalgo. I haven't tasted the local wines, but drinking friends assure me that they are quite good.
A small hotel or someone's house?

A number of these vineyards also serve as one-stop "destinations" for extravagant weddings, that include a hotel, restaurants, riding stables and, in the case of San Lucas, even a chapel.

We had lunch at the main restaurant with a friend, and we all agreed the food was extraordinary, and the price nearly so, at $900 pesos per person, including tips. Not a bad deal if you factor in the quality of the food, the luxury of the dining room and the chance to casually stroll the grounds, apres-comida, and pretend you belong there.

The splendor of San Lucas left me thinking about the South Korean movie "Parasite" that won this year's Oscar for best picture. It's a morality play about greed and income inequality, told through the story of a family who lives in an opulent mansion, and a group of impoverished grifters, who live in a hovel that's half basement, and finagle to be hired for various jobs around the mansion. Things go very awry and the story doesn't end well.

At a rally in Colorado, President Trump denounced the movie and said he prefers movies like "Gone With the Wind."

The wine cellar, which you can rent for comida.
I also thought about the Mexican movie "Roma," last year's critical hit, which dealt with the relationship between a middle-class family and their peasant-stock household help.

Although improving slowly, Mexico still ranks very high in income inequality, and I suspect class resentments may have been responsible for the rise of the current populist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who doesn't seem to be making much headway in his promises to tackle the country's economic inequality and the top-down corruption that lubricates the both the economic and political system.

But to be fair to Lopez Obrador, confronting such ingrained problems might be beyond the ability of any political leader, regardless of his or her political affiliations. It's a task that may well nigh require an act of God.

Monday, February 17, 2020

An old easy rider rides again

Once upon a time, maybe 15 years ago, in a place far away, Chicago, I used to be an avid cyclist. I would ride to work and back, about five or six miles each way, and most astonishingly, I would do so every morning, regardless of the weather, with a tenacity bordering on insanity.

There were easy,  postcard days when the sun shone, and the breezes from Lake Michigan blew gentle and cool. The ride would be an instant drug-free high. I would meander on the bike paths of Lincoln Park, a huge patch of lakefront greenery on the scale of New York's Central Park. I'd pedal past the Lincoln Park Zoo and park district greenhouses and gardens, the Cafe Brauer, a cousin of New York's Tavern on the Green, and for the final stretch, a narrow path between Lake Shore Drive and the emerald water of Lake Michigan. There were showers and lockers at work, and I'd usually arrive at my office late.

On those perfect days, I would occasionally let go of the handlebars and put hands on my hips, maybe even sing or whistle a tune or two. Life doesn't get much better.

Chicago's weather, of course, didn't always make things easy. During hot days, I could take my shirt off. When it got cooler, I always had a smelly sweatshirt in my backpack that I could throw on. Rain was no big deal. I just got soaked.

Then came those bone-chilling days of January and February, when the grey skies seemed to descend to within ten feet off the ground, and there could be hail, snow or freezing rain. The Midwest would unleash the worst weather in its arsenal, and test my commitment to my daily ride. Sometimes I hesitated for a few minutes, but ultimately plunged ahead, driven by the notion that if I gave up for just one day, more excuses would follow, and I might never get back to my routine. My solution was to add layers of clothing, long insulated pants, a bright-orange down-filled jacket, gloves and boots until I was warm enough even if looked like a mummy on wheels.

Ride while the sun shines. 
During one specially hairy return trip, the pavement on the path along Lake Shore Drive was covered with a treacherous patina of ice, and I had to dismount and walk my bike for two or three blocks. Other days when the lakefront paths hadn't been plowed, I drove on the streets, weaving around rush-hour traffic.

I only had two accidents. Once I got distracted and lost control and landed on my ass, but bruising nothing but my pride. Another time, I got "doored" when I crashed into someone getting out of their car. That sent me to the emergency room for some stitches.

A bigger eye-opener, though, occurred while waiting for the light to change at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a few blocks from my house. I had attended an AA meeting the night before, and listened to someone talk movingly about his umpteen years of sobriety. Then the next morning, around eight o'clock, I spotted the same guy, crossing the street stumbling drunk. There for the grace of God, thought I.

After three or four years of this furious, almost compulsive pedaling, I was as physically fit as I've ever been. Dare we say, buff? You would have never confused my butt with that of ballet dancer or a toreador, but it was presentable. No six-pack but no stomach flab either. And my increased stamina sometimes made me feel as if I could pedal on to Milwaukee.

Up to then I'd never had a brush with athleticism. In sports, I was the typically uncoordinated gay boy who ran in the opposite direction at the sight of a baseball. And now at age 50 or so, here I was, fit as a fiddle.

Hello there, my old friend. 
Then we retired to Mexico, and brought down a truckful of stuff, most of it since discarded or given away. The bicycle of my Chicago riding days came down too, but it's sat idle ever since, as if I had parked on a patch of wet cement that dried around the wheels and turned it into a reproachful piece of metal sculpture.

While living in San Miguel's centro, my excuse always was that the steep hills and cobblestones of the city were too much of challenge for a returning cyclist, 15 or 20 years after the last ride. But here at the ranch, only a half-mile from a paved, gently undulating road, that denial-cum-excuse doesn't hold.

In the meantime, my waistline has gone from 32 inches to a snug, aspirational 36. Belly fat has crept in, and most annoyingly, all manner of aches and pains, traveling from joint to joint. If there were a soundtrack of my movements, it would sound like the resentful creaks and squeaks of an '57 Chevy on a bumpy road.

So Saturday, the old bike came out of the garage. It is in perfect operating condition, thanks to Felix, who uses it periodically when his own wreck of a bike has a flat.

I had to first reacquaint myself with the gears. In its day, this was a fairly expensive bike, seemingly with 50 gears that you controlled with both hands. I climbed on, and much to my embarrassment, for a few seconds, had some trouble keeping my balance. I weaved unsteadily down the driveway and onto the dirt road that goes past our house. On to the paved road about a half-mile down and back. That road in fact has turned into a major cycling and motorcycling venue, particularly on holidays.

And on again, maybe a little farther, this afternoon. If you see me coming, no need to avert your eyes: I'm still a long ways for donning my old red-and-black Spandex cycling shorts. I'll let you know when it's safe to look.

-30-

Friday, February 14, 2020

Dr. Zhivago visits Havana and feels at home

A few days ago we watched Dr. Zhivago on Amazon Prime, a three-and-a-half hour whale of a movie that calls for at least two bags of popcorn and multiple trips to the bathroom. Omar Sharif, as Zhivago, was at the height of his hottie-ness when the movie was made 55 years ago. That far back I probably was too, and unlike Omar, I'm still alive. A perpetually swooning Julie Christie, who played Lara, didn't look too shabby either.

Omar during his salad days. 
What really struck me about Zhivago were the brief vignettes about life under early Bolshevik social engineering, including the attempt to solve the shortage of housing, and achieve instant economic equality, by confiscating private homes and, overnight, converting them into public housing for the proletariat. The transitions were overseen by some local schmuck, suddenly promoted to revolutionary avatar ever-ready to spout Communist one-liners and threaten anyone who voiced any doubts.

Dr. Zhivago's author, Boris Pasternak, initially sympathized with the egalitarian goals of the Bolshevik revolution, but turned sharply away from them later in his life. The Soviet government, ever vigilant against any "fake news," banned the publication of Dr. Zhivago at home and kept Pasternak from accepting the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. The book ultimately was published in Italy.

Now turn to Cuba after the revolution, when the government set out to implement the same housing redistribution policies, leading to the same results: Tens of thousands of grand buildings in Havana turned into instant, overcrowded slums, as the result of neglect, a sputtering economy and gross mismanagement, all leading to a dire housing shortage that still plagues the country today.

For a vivid description of the sad condition of  Havana today, I recommend a visit to a blog published in Cuba called Generation Y, at https://generacionyen.wordpress.com/, written by Yoani Sanchez, a young and courageous Cuban journalist who has won international recognition for her work. Her latest post has a photo gallery of Havana today. Sad.

Havana: Apocalypse Now

Housing for the masses.
In a saner, more rational world, one could imagine a conversation between the Castro brothers, circa 1970, aboard their armored Mercedes, that might have stemmed Havana's downward spiral.

"Bro, under the visionary, unerring leadership of the Party," Raul says to Fidel. "Havana, once one of the grandest capitals in Latin America, has turned into a heaping, steaming pile of mierda. This whole Commie thing ain't working out, bro. Maybe we should have checked what happened in the Soviet Union and learned from it."

Of course, that conversation never took place, let alone lead to a loosening of the obsessive control of the economy dictated by Communist dogma. Except for small, sections of Old Havana restored for the benefit of the tourist trade, the city continues to literally collapse, piece by piece, and the shortage of decent housing is worse than ever.

Leaving Cuba for a second, now try to imagine if other world leaders had paid closer attention to  history, how many bloody wars, invasions, and multi-billion dollar debacles might have been avoided. Afghanistan? How did that work out for the British and the Russians? Vietnam? Did anyone check how that went for the French? Iraq? Syria?

In fact, as the American eagle impatiently flapped its wings, in preparation for invasions of those countries, someone probably did do a quick history check. But their cautionary findings promptly were overruled by superiors drunk with a combination of imperial hubris, wishful thinking (the Iraq war will pay for itself!), and the instant rush of adrenaline the beating the war drums brings to the male heart.

Imagine now what Havana might look like today if that conversation in the back of the Mercedes limousine had actually taken place. Imagine.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Looking for ol' time religion

A couple of weeks ago we heard that Jon, really an acquaintance more than a close friend, whom we had met at the Unitarian group in town, had died. His death by itself was not that newsworthy; given the geriatric demographics of San Miguel's expat community, we constantly hear of folks who've died or are battling a dire affliction. On bad days, the place reminds me of Land of the Living Dead or the Nearly Dead. Not funny.   

What caught our attention, though, was Jon's age: 77. Jon wasn't that old, really. Just four years older than Stew, five more than I. We likely will live longer, or perhaps not. We hope our departure is nothing as dramatic as Thelma and Louise's, but the precipice at the end of the road in definitely in sight.

Thelma and Louise went
 thataway (approx.)
Understandably, discussion about the uncertainties, and even terrors, of aging and age-related infirmities is not something that expats generally want to share over comida.  It's like the crazy uncle locked up in the attic, who keeps banging on the rafters, but who everyone tries to ignore.

It's depressing, alright. 

We, and particularly Stew, have prepared wills, named executors and beneficiaries and in general, we think, have covered all the legal and financial bases. 

But aside from that, what do we do with the rest of our lives, whether it extends 10, 15 years or more? It feels as if despite all our compulsive planning, there is yet something we haven't dealt with.

So for the past six months, Stew has been talking about a search for an intangible called "spirituality."

That's a surprising development on his part because he was baptized and confirmed at a denomination called Salem Evangelical United Brethren Church of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Not exactly in the major leagues of Christianity, which is reflected in Stew's only glancing acquaintance with the Bible story and its main characters. It's not for a lack of brains, I assure you. Maybe he slept through Sunday school. 

I, on the other hand, went through the entire drill of a Catholic education, from kindergarten through college. If Stew's knowledge of organized religion is mostly a tabula rasa, my spiritual tabula is covered with crushing Catholic dogma, guilt and condemnations which, as a gay man, eventually drove me away from the Church.

Stew and I have talked about what spirituality means to us in the context of mutual experiences we felt were uplifting and comforting, even if we're not sure why. 

Grote Kerk, Haarlem
One of those was attendance, several years ago, at a late afternoon evensong service at the Grote Kerk, a 16th Century Reformed Protestant Church in the main square of Haarlem, north of Amsterdam.  The formerly Catholic building was huge but sparsely decorated, almost barren, except for a single crucifix at the end of the nave. There was none of the bloody, cringe-inducing statuary and grotesquerie you find in Roman Catholic churches in Mexico.

The service was led by a beautiful young woman, with hair almost down to her tailbone, who wore an appropriately simple green vestment, and a choir of men, women and children. She'd recite a piece of Scripture for a few minutes, and the choir would follow with another few minutes of singing. Back and forth, for about 45 minutes, maybe an hour.

Then it was over, except for the warm greetings and handshakes by many of the Dutch congregants as they passed by us, to which we could only respond with uncomprehending nods and smiles. We don't speak Dutch and the only part of the service we had understood was the occasional "Gott" and "Amen."

Still, as we walked back to the station to take the train back to Amsterdam, we talked about how we felt profoundly moved by what we had experienced. We wondered, and still wonder: What was that about? What made the experience so memorably "spiritual"? What does that mean? Is that something that can be replicated in our after-church lives?

The church visit was totally unplanned. We'd just finished dinner across the street, and spontaneously, almost impulsively, went into the church as if someone had pointed us to the door. Cynics and skeptics might say it was a purely serendipitous experience, no more significant that going into a souvenir store.

Yet I've wondered too if that may not have been one of those events in life called "a moment of grace," like a warm, unexpected breeze that sweeps you, envelops you, and demands your attention. 

Another moment of grace, though this one was planned, was our visit to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, an ascetic, and a rather peculiar fellow, who lived in the 13th century and whose life and example led to the formation of the Franciscans, the largest Catholic religious order in the world.

We had driven up from Florence, where we'd spent three or four chaotic days wading through mobs of tourists. It seemed as if half the population of China had arrived at the same time we did, everyone armed with a smartphone and a selfie stick.

St. Francis of Assisi, a colorful guy. 
Assisi had its own crowd of tourists, but the beauty of this city, perched atop a high hill, aerie-like, helped shut off the noise. We visited the basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, as well as the basilica where they buried St. Claire, one of his early followers who formed her own religious order. "Rancho Santa Clara" is named after St. Claire, and it's also the name of my home town in Cuba.

The churches in Assisi were far from spare or minimalist. St. Francis's church was filled with frescoes by Giotto and others, mosaics, stained glass windows in a maximalist Catholic style. It was an eyeful. I don't know how anyone can pay attention to a service there, surrounded by such an art collection. Maybe it helps.

Yet, both Stew and I sat in one of the pews and just gawked, open-mouthed at the interior of the place. Stew agrees that Assisi also had a certain "aura," that warm breeze that affected both us in Haarlem, even if we still didn't know why.

We wish we could have spent more time in Assisi, but our rushed, if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Pisa schedule didn't allow it.

I'm not sure what to get out of those two completely different places that somehow had such an impact on us. There seems to have been an element of "faith", of accepting something that confronts you out of left field, no questions asked, when you least expect it. We didn't plan to go to evensong in Haarlem and expected only a couple of days and a few photo opportunities in Assisi.

Both places turned out to be far more than that, and are etched in our heads in ways that Florence or the Belgian town of Bruges are not, beautiful as they were.

They also involved a community experience, particularly in Haarlem where we were greeted so warmly and unexpectedly. These were not lone, meditative sojourns in a cave.

Stew and I have begun going to church during the past few months, a non-denominational, low-dogma Christian church we had attended before. On Wednesday, we'll attend a Bible study, a first for both of us.

For my part, my Kindle reader has turned into a helter-skelter collection of religious or spiritual readings (Anne Lamott, Meditations about St. Francis and such). How all those pieces might, or might not, gel into a simple, daily spiritual practice is impossible to tell. But our beginning to explore the possibilities could be a kernel of faith trying to germinate.

I am not sure what to make of God, and yes, that's a problem. I don't find myself "talking" or getting emails from Him, Her, or It. Scripture to me is historical rendering of a people, and their experiences, which may be generally instructive to us today, centuries later, not code of regulations. In the morning, when I look out our bedroom window, God occasionally shows up as narrow layer of fog cropping the mountaintops. Then the sun comes out, and, puff, there it goes. 

Jesus? A hell of a guy, no doubt, a historical figure who preached an important message, but whose life and teachings are shrouded in imaginative, propagandistic anecdotes written by His disciples, years after the fact.

Heaven? No such thing as far as I know. The reward for a life well lived will come here on earth, I believe, though I must admit that sitting on a cloud, surrounded by angels plucking harps while offering you chocolate-covered marshmallows, doesn't seem like such a bad way to spend eternity.

Friday, January 31, 2020

This too will end, but not just yet

Our legal battle with someone trying to take a piece of our ranch began in June 2018, and it's been working its way through the innards of the Mexican judicial system since, slowly and methodically, but not definitively. It's a fight not only over ownership of a piece of land but, more crucially, to preserve our right to freely go in and out of our property.

Last week we received news from our lawyer that the judge, after several months of cogitation, had in effect rendered a split decision. She'd mandated the creation of a roughly 100-square-meter public easement, or a servidumbre de paso, in front of our entrance gate, to guarantee free access to our land, but also had ruled that the other guys could keep the rest of the disputed land, which measures approximately 3,300 square meters.

The battlefield. 
Not a perfect solution, but at least this hassle would be over. We weren't happy with the verdict, but under the often-used WTF!? clause in the Mexican Civil Code, had decided to accept the guarantee of access to our property as a settlement and move on. Or so we thought.

In legal battles with Mexicans, particularly over land or other property, foreigners frequently invoke the WTF!? clause, and sometimes even walk away, when they realize they are fighting a war of attrition whose ground rules they don't even understand.

Such informal rules in Mexico frequently involve under-the-table deals and payoffs. While litigating our case, the other side pulled, from a dark hole, a fraudulent escritura, or land deed, claiming ownership of the disputed property.

Feel free to ask: How can the other side obtain an escritura on a parcel that has been, and still is, in my name, and on which I've paid property taxes for 11 years, most recently three weeks ago?

Such are the mysteries of some land transactions here, which our lawyer explains with one-word: corruption

Many friends, particularly Mexicans, have been astonished by our persistence, or pig-headedness, to continue to navigate through this legal morass, filled as it is with impenetrable verbiage in Spanish, legal booby-traps, paperwork and delays on top of delays. 

Plus, in our case, threats, intimidation and harassment, including an early-morning raid when a construction crew built a one-meter-high stone wall across our front gate, which forced us to enter and exit our ranch by going through a neighbor's property.

Apparently that was too much for the local authorities to swallow, and the obstruction disappeared four days later, as mysteriously as it had appeared.

However, during a meeting yesterday, our lawyer said that the court had not granted the land to the other party, as we thought, but instead just ordered the creation of the easement cutting through the disputed land.

And that was it. The judge in fact had kicked the can down the road, leaving unresolved the issues of valid escrituras, land surveys, boundaries and so on. For us, that means more lawsuits and litigation.

Or the other side could walk away, now that the judge had effectively dissected the disputed land by a servidumbre de paso, and drastically diminished its usefulness or value. If that's what happens, we'll get our land back by default, since I'm still the legal owner. Maybe.

This legal pingpong so far has cost us approximately $10,000 dollars. After that much expense, we're not disposed to give up. We're going to keep fighting to get our land back. 

That will force me to keep my one dress shirt and tie handy for future court appearances, depositions and such. It may be time to buy a new tie. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Vacations are for dreaming

Going on vacation while you're retired may sound like an oxymoron to those still driven by the nine-to-five workaday life. 

Not so much, though, I've found: Even in retirement one quickly gets entangled in schedules, routines, things that need attention, that eat away at the time every day that should be reserved for imagining and even dreaming. Isn't that one of the reasons why people look forward to retirement in the first place? 

Every year, around January or February, when even in temperate San Miguel the wind gets nippy, days shorter and shades of brown sweep over the landscape, Stew and I decamp to the beach for two weeks. For the past several years we've gone to Playa Blanca, a very quiet area south of Zihuatanejo,  on Mexico's Pacific coast, where we rent a beachfront bungalow. 

That arrangement didn't pan out this year so we rented a condo down the road. The digs are much fancier but they accomplished the same purpose: a disconnect from routines back home.

First routine to go was checking news in the morning, especially these days when the Trump impeachment elbows out just about all other current events. In fact, I don't know what's happening with that imbroglio, and I don't care, a surprising admission from someone who's a news junkie. American politics has turned into a runaway train that reminds me of the adage about letting go of things one can't control, particularly while on vacation. 

Gondola builders in Venice
The time freed up by the no-news diet has led me to spend time on photography and gardening internet sites, mostly daydreaming.  For sure, most of the images scrolling on the screen were creations that are beyond my skill level. But so what? Maybe I can pick up a tip or two. 

The photo above obviously has been modified in Photoshop, yielding this lush image that reminds me more of a Renaissance painting than a photo. I began investigating how it was done, though, alas, on our last vacation day there wasn't much time. I'll make time to figure it out when I get home. I promise. I love that picture. 

Gardenista, a gardening site that posts different stories every day, provided another flying carpet for my imagination. One posting was about Piet Oudolf, an international gardening star from the Netherlands, the "Mick Jagger of Gardening." He designed the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Grant Park and the High Line in New York. One piece of advice I learned from Oudolf is to learn how to appreciate the beauty of the wintertime garden, after the riotous colors of spring and summer are no more. 

"Flowers fade," the article said. "Oudolf chooses plants more for shape and texture than for their blooms. Stripped bare, stalks, stems, and seed pods become architectural elements in the garden. The secret: Embrace decay instead of rushing into the garden with your pruners at the first sign of wilting."
Oudolf's garden in the Netherlands in the winter. 

My sere garden at the ranch is looking better already. 

Most surprisingly, particularly after spending 40-odd winters in New York and Chicago, I also caught myself admiring a wintertime photo of New York. I felt nostalgic even as friends in Chicago emailed me about feeling jealous about our sojourn at the beach. 

New York's High Line Park.
For ten years or so, Stew and I owned a small lakefront cottage north of Chicago. In the winter, when the ground was covered with several inches of snow, our dog Pooch, a Border Collie-plus-something mix, would look eagerly out the car window as we approached the place. Before we pulled up to the house, Pooch would jump out to run, full-speed, dozens of figure eights in the snow, kicking, digging and rolling in it, followed by a quick chase of any geese or ducks by the shore. After this half-hour drill, he would come and collapse in front of the wood stove which would still be barely warming up. By then, Pooch would be heaven-bound, a picture of unalloyed joy. 

I also read a novel—continuously!—which I seldom do at home. It was "Where the Crawdads Sing," by Delia Owens a scientist by profession who, in her late 60's, took up writing a novel. Crawdads has sold nearly four million copies since publication. Quite a blast-off for a late-in-life career changer. 

Tomorrow we go back to San Miguel, a seven-hour drive, and the dreaming is about to end. 

This morning a dental implant fell off: Gotta call the dentist. On Saturday and Sunday, Stew and I are working at an Amigos de Animales spay-and-neuter clinic. We work the weigh-in station at the registration desk and can expect to greet 250 to 300 perritos and gatitos, and their owners, during those two days. We also need to plan for a tamalada we're hosting the following Sunday for Félix, his family and our Mexican neighbors. 

The dreaming will be over, but I'll be glad to be home. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

My denial runs thin about crime in San Miguel

In this morning's Civil List, the internet bulletin board shared by expats in San Miguel, there was a post about the escalating security problem. In addition to alarm, I felt curiosity about what tune the usual chorus of civic boosters, particularly the municipal authorities, would intone this time, to downplay bad news about a town whose main industry is tourism. 

Just yesterday I'd replied to an email from a blog reader, who is considering moving to San Miguel but is concerned about crime here. I spun the problem, I did, so I wouldn't sound like a Nervous Nellie or a carrier of the Chicken Little Virus.

I said the spate of shootings and homicides are related to turf battles among narco dealers in some rougher neighborhoods, presumably removed from the nicer enclaves where expats live and go out for comidas and gallery openings. Also, crimes occurred after dark; stay off the streets and highways late at night and you should be safe.

I also said that at least crime in San Miguel, though increasing, was not random or senseless as mass shootings in the U.S., such as the massacre at the Walmart in El Paso on August 3, in which a crazy man killed 22 and wounded another 24 innocent victims.

By comparison, I said, the rise in homicide here, and in the state of Guanajuato, which has shot up to near the top of the most crime-ridden states in Mexico, seemed more like a deadly intramural game inside the narco world. Law-abiders need not worry.

But any more, I'm having problems believing my own argle-bargle.

During the Christmas shopping season, at least four stores at Plaza La Luciérnaga shopping center were held up. The owner of an interior design shop said that a couple of young guys showed up at about 10:30 a.m., hogtied the two male employees on duty and made off with a safe box they yanked from behind the counter. Not a subtle M.O.

On Tuesday morning, police found a body, apparently shot execution style, on the Prolongación Cinco de Mayo street, close to the Centro and near some of the city's tonier streets.

Three dead, including a 13-year-old. 
That evening, unknown assailants shot up a city bus near the road to Dolores Hidalgo, the so-called "Golden Corridor" for its collection of upscale residential subdivisions, including the Las Ventanas housing and golf course. Police found three dead, including a 13-year-old kid in charge of collecting fares. The killers got away aboard a black Chevy Suburban.

Most unsettling news yet was the carjacking at gunpoint—a few minutes after noon on Wednesday—of an imposing GMC Sierra SUV, along with a Toyota Highlander, at the Glorieta El Pipil, the busiest in the city, surrounded by two major landmarks, the Mega supermarket and the Pollo Feliz restaurant. Someone witnessing the crime took a brief video that shows masked gunman forcing people out of their vehicles, getting in them and taking off, while other cars just drive by. 

The one who didn't get away. 
The brazenness astounds, though not as much that the police actually caught the guy in the stolen GMC Sierra and arrested him, after a high-speed chase, Frank Bullitt-style, that also involved police cars from the nearby town of Comonfort, even if the driver of the Toyota Highlander did get away. Still, news of the local cops actually catching a criminal deserves special mention.

As one commenter said on the Civil List, it was "a rough day" for crime in San Miguel, though this mini-spree actually spread over two days. It also undercut my soothing spiel to out-of-towners about security problems in our town. 

From now on, I'll just say that the weather here continues to be as close to ideal as one would find anywhere, and that, contrary to rumors about their ineptitude, the San Miguel police occasionally catch their guy.

That's my line, and I'm sticking with it until further notice.

Photos from the Noticias con Valor website.