Seizure of Mexican Utility Spurs Protests

Calderón Denies Move Is First Salvo in Campaign to Dismantle Trade Unions


Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 16, 2009

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 15 — Union members and their political allies filled the streets of the Mexican capital Thursday night to condemn President Felipe Calderón’s recent liquidation of a state-run power utility, a surprise move seen by many as an assault on organized labor.

Declaring the state-owned company so poorly managed as to be “unsustainable,” Calderón on Saturday night authorized the seizure of Central Light and Power. He also deployed about 1,000 federal police officers in riot gear to enforce his decree; workers from another state-run power company swept in to take over the electric grid and keep the lights on.

For Mexico, the takeover marked a pivotal moment. The government has long allowed state enterprises and their powerful unions to operate at a loss, in order to boost employment and keep the peace between haves and have-nots. But, at Central Light and Power, Calderón said the government could not continue to support staffing levels and salaries demanded by the powerful Mexican Electricians Union in the midst of a deep economic crisis. It did not help that the company has lost a third of its electricity to waste and theft.

Union members have reacted with outrage, sparking a widening political brawl over the new realities of the social contract in Mexico.

On Wednesday, Calderón, a member of the conservative, pro-business National Action Party, denied charges by the electricians and their political supporters that the liquidation of Light and Power was the first step in a coming campaign to dismantle other trade unions, such as guilds for teachers and oil workers, which play an outsize role in the economic and political life of Mexico.

But the president’s promises did little to calm the roiling political fight, as both right and left, business leaders and union chiefs, quickly took up opposing sides.

The leftist populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost to Calderón by a tight margin in a contested election in 2006, charged that Calderón was seeking to destroy Mexico’s strong unions. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard offered his support by ordering that an international book fair in the city’s main plaza be dismantled to allow the thousands of protesters to occupy the space. Ebrard expressed sympathy for the electricians and questioned why they were fired in the midst of recession.

The union threatened to seek a court order stopping the liquidation of the company, which, legally, may also spell the end of the electricians union.

Analysts were divided on Calderón’s motives. The business community generally supported the shutdown of Mexico’s second-largest utility, citing its poor service and weak management. Reacting favorably to the president’s move, Mexico’s Bolsa index this week reached its highest level this year.

Others saw politics at play.

“There’s not doubt that Light and Power is an inefficient company,” said John Ackerman, professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “But the fact that he has decided to go against the union that historically most clearly represents the achievements of union rights and the left in Mexico is very much a political decision.”

In explaining the company’s losses, Ackerman pointed out that Mexico City and its surrounding areas are the most industrial in the country but harbor a huge informal economy, in which pirating electricity is common.

Daniel Lund, a political pollster in Mexico City, said Calderón “wants to do something big and media-grabbing to dominate attention,” while avoiding going after the bigger challenges in the economy, such as the inefficient state-run oil company, Pemex, and quasi-monopolies such as Telmex, the telephone company.

“I think the policy is very contradictory, because on the one hand, you have a different government attitude towards unions very similar to the one at Light and Power,” said Carlos Alba, professor of political science at the College of Mexico. “The teachers union or the petroleum workers union are very similar in many ways, so you wonder why shut down one and not the others?”

Calderón offered severance packages to the 44,000 employees at Light and Power and promised to continue pensions for retired workers. His government pledged not to privatize Light and Power and announced Wednesday that the utility would be run by another state company, the Federal Electricity Commission, which critics say is poorly run.

Researcher Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.


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Calderon Tries to Turn Out the Lights on Mexico’s Unions

Thursday 15 October 2009

by: Michael E. Miller, t r u t h o u t | Report

(Photo Illustration: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t, Adapted From: erjkprunczykOswaldo Ordóñez (Orcoo)Ian Koh / flickr)

Mexico City – Every Monday morning for the last 23 years, Ernesto arrived at Luz y Fuerza del Centro, Mexico City’s power and light company, ready to work. This Monday, however, he arrived ready to protest.

Late Saturday night, as Mexicans celebrated their national soccer team’s qualification for the World Cup, President Felipe Calderòn sent hundreds of federal police to surround Luz y Fuerza. Hours later, he ordered the liquidation of the state-run company, claiming it was financially “unsustainable” due to corruption and waste.

Now Ernesto and 43,000 other Luz y Fuerza employees are out of work. Another 22,000 retirees are wondering what will happen to their pensions.

Controversial and possibly unconstitutional, Calderòn’s decree was the first step towards what many Mexicans fear is the privatization of yet another of their country’s key industries. But some wonder if the shutdown isn’t something larger: a warning to unions across the country to cooperate, or else face elimination.

“This is a war against the unions,” Ernesto yelled over the chants of several thousand other protesters in downtown Mexico City. “If you break the Electricians Union, which is the nation’s strongest, then all the other unions will eventually fall too. That’s neoliberalism.”

Calderòn, who belongs to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), has denied that closing Luz y Fuerza represents an attack on Mexico’s unions.

“This measure is not, as has been said, a political attack by the government against union life,” Calderòn said Wednesday. “I reiterate and will always reiterate my respect for union autonomy and for the lives and working rights of Mexican workers.”

Yet, the shutdown came with little warning, following a public spat between the federal government and the union representing Luz y Fuerza workers.

On October 5, Calderòn’s administration refused to recognize Martín Esparza as leader of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), which represents Luz y Fuerza del Centro. The federal government cited “irregularities” in SME’s recent internal election, which Esparza won for the third consecutive time.

Esparza is an ally of Andrés Manuel Lòpez Obrador, the liberal Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) candidate who narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election to Calderòn amidst charges of voter fraud.

Five days after refusing to recognize Esparza, Calderòn shocked the country by shutting down Luz y Fuerza, handing over the responsibility of providing electricity for nearly a third of the country to another state-owned company, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).

Calderòn’s administration has called the move a cost-cutting measure, alleging that years of waste and poor service by Luz y Fuerza have hurt the country by driving companies out of the capital.

“Luz y Fuerza del Centro’s results are notably inferior compared to organizations that provide the same services internationally and compared to the Federal Electricity Commission,” the government said in a statement explaining the shutdown. The government says Luz y Fuerza lost 30 percent of its electricity due to theft and inefficiency.

The controversy comes at a difficult time for Mexico, as debate rages over proposed government austerity programs aimed at alleviating the economic crisis.

Despite predictions that the Mexican economy will contract 7.5 percent in 2009 – the worst contraction since the 1930s – Calderòn has rejected PRD calls for a more aggressive stimulus plan. Instead, he has proposed closing several government ministries as well as a two percent hike in sales tax on nonfood items – a tax hike liberals say will hit the poor the hardest.

Yet, Calderòn has tried to link the decision to shutter Luz y Fuerza with his economic plan, which he says will help Mexico’s poor. The president has said repeatedly that the roughly $3 billion in annual subsidies received by Luz y Fuerza is more than the cost of Mexico’s Oportunidades anti-poverty program, implying that the savings will be redirected to the poor.

Meanwhile, reports of blackouts are up across the country since Sunday. The newspaper El Universal reports power outages in 32 neighborhoods in Mexico City, as well as in ten nearby cities.

The Electricians Union and the federal government have traded accusations all week long, ranging from charges of SME sabotaging power lines (a claim since retracted by the government) to federal police kidnapping SME members and forcing them to work without pay (a charge denied by the government).

Calderòn’s PAN party has largely followed in lockstep with the president’s decision, while the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – returned to power in the July 5 elections – has also supported him. The PRD, however, has filed a petition with the Mexican Supreme Court alleging that since the National Assembly established Luz y Fuerza, not the president, the he never had the power to dissolve it in the first place.

In his televised speech Sunday, Calderòn swore he wasn’t privatizing the nation’s electricity. But so far, the Department of Energy has said it may only rehire 8,500 Luz y Fuerza employees to help the CFE. Considering that the government originally said that half of Luz y Fuerza’s employees were unnecessary, that leaves 13,000 required positions still empty. Where will those jobs come from if not from private companies?

“Calderòn says he’s not privatizing us, just turning our jobs over to the CFE,” said Ernesto, who declined to give his last name for fear of government persecution. “But the CFE already has lots of private contracts. They’re buying their electricity. Just go and ask in the north of Mexico how many private companies are generating electricity.”

“It’s a backdoor to privatization,” he said.

With its petitions for a public debate between Esparza and Calderòn ignored, SME has enlisted dozens of other labor unions and planned a large demonstration for Thursday in downtown Mexico City. If the Luz y Fuerza debacle wasn’t already a battle between Calderòn and Mexico’s unions, it soon will be.

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Stories of abuse from Mexico’s ‘forgotten border’

Mexico City – Claudia Lopez was lucky. When Mexican immigration officials pulled her off of the bus, they beat her 15-year-old brother, not her. She was shouted at and thrown in a van, but not abused. And she only spent three days in a crowded jail cell before being sent back across the border.

Lopez, 16, is one of hundreds of Guatemalan minors deported by the Mexican government this year. They arrive back in Guatemala alone, with nothing but stories of violence and abuse suffered on the trip north. 

Often, they claim either Mexican authorities or coyotes _ smugglers hired to sneak them across the border _ stole their money and personal belongings. Sometimes their stories include rape or sexual abuse.

“They treated us so badly,” Lopez said from a shelter for deported children in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, about an hour from the Mexican border. 

“My brother was with me when they grabbed us and they began hitting him. He resisted so they hit him some more,” Lopez said three days after her deportation. “I swore to them that we weren’t Guatemalans, that they shouldn’t treat us like that.”

An agreement reached in July between Mexico and its Central American neighbors promises to better protect children like Claudia caught entering Mexico illegally. But critics argue that Mexico has yet to fully protect the tens of thousands of immigrants who cross its southern border, especially unaccompanied minors who are at highest risk of abuse and exploitation.

“Anything can happen to them on the road”

They arrive morning, day and night: prepubescent boys and girls without money, food or parents in the run-down border city of Tecun Uman.

Most of them are Guatemalans, just deported from Mexico by immigration officials scouring the cities of Tuxtla Gutierrez or Tapachula in the poor southern state of Chiapas. Many of them wander the streets until they find either a bar or a shelter in which to spend the night.

“Some of them turn themselves in to the police, only to be brought here” to Tecun Uman, said Father Ademar Barilli, who runs a halfway house for migrants.

But neglect by Mexican authorities is the least of the children’s worries, Barilli said. Some are bought and sold by child traffickers; the girls forced into sex work.  Others are double-crossed by coyotes or attacked by thieves while trying to walk across the border. They arrive to the shelters with welts and bruises.

“Anything can happen to them on the road, not least of all by immigration officials,” Barilli said. Abuse by Mexican authorities is a common allegation among migrant shelters in Guatemala, but few of the shelters have the resources or legal authority to investigate such reports.

Besides, Barilli said, “there’s so much fear and xenophobia, so many threats, that they don’t want to discuss any of it.”

After years of relatively little attention, Mexico’s treatment of Guatemalan immigrants has come under recent criticism.

A survey by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission released in June shows that thousands of mainly Central American migrants are kidnapped for ransom each year as they cross Mexico. 

Nearly 10,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico between September and February, mainly by drug gangs and occasionally with the involvement of authorities, according to the commission’s interviews with migrants.

Meanwhile, a June report by the U.S. State Department said the Mexican government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“In a new trend, unaccompanied Central American minors, traveling through Mexico to meet family members in the United States, increasingly fall victim to human traffickers, particularly near the Guatemalan border,” the report found.

“The forgotten border”

According to the Guatemalan government officials, roughly 800 Guatemalan minors have been deported from Mexico so far in 2009, more than 700 of them without their parents. 

This is at odds with numbers from the Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, whose website says only 71 unaccompanied minors were deported last year from Mexico to any other country.

The discrepancy is evidence of how easily migrant children fall through the cracks along what is often called Mexico’s “forgotten border.”

Migrant children often lie about their age to Mexican officials in the hope of being released, said Jose Villagran, director of Guatemala’s Social Risk Program, which runs shelters for deported children.  

“Some children have complained of abuse by Mexican officials,” he said, “but their experience is relatively good.” Most, like Claudia, are transported from Tapachula, Mexico, toQuetzaltenango in a safe bus with food and bathrooms.

But many social workers and church officials who take care of the children disagree.

“Lots of minors are released only to be in more danger, or they’re turned over to be people who claim to be their parents, not necessarily their mom or dad,” said Barilli, the priest in charge of the migrant shelter in Tecun Uman.

In the past year, the Mexican government has made efforts to improve its treatment of immigrants. During the XIV Regional Conference on Migration in July, Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries approved new guidelines for the safe treatment and deportation of unaccompanied minors.

Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (INM) refused repeated requests for an interview. However, a statement released shortly after the conference said, “the INM shares the National Human Rights Commission’s concern for the growing problems that confront migrants entering and traveling through the country.”

The statement also announced the assignment of special border officers to protect unaccompanied minors, who it called “one of the most vulnerable migrant groups.”

Mexico recently decriminalized undocumented immigration, a move meant to protect immigrants from abuse.

Yet doubts still remain as to whether Mexico is doing enough to protect the tens of thousands of Central American immigrants that pour across its southern border every year.

At least 30 Guatemalan children deported so far this year were allegedly victims of human trafficking, according to Villagran, the Guatemalan government official.

Meanwhile, many social workers doubt that the recent agreement or added border officers will translate into better treatment or safer passage for Central American migrants.

“They are always making changes, but we aren’t seeing any migration policies that are really changing the situation here… or make these children any safer,” Barilli said.

But for Claudia Lopez, not the days in jail, not the $400 dollars lost to the coyote, not even seeing her younger brother beaten before her eyes could change her plans to sneak back into Mexico.

“I think I’ll try again,” she said shortly before her parents arrived to sign for her release. “Once you have the dream of helping your parents out of poverty, out of their years of suffering, you can’t quit.”

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In Mexico City, water worries leave millions high and dry

June 23, 2009


MEXICO CITY- According to a new study, even bottled water isn’t 100 percent safe in Mexico City _ a sprawling metropolis stigmatized by Montezuma’s revenge, a tongue-and-cheek play on the last Aztec emperor’s name used today to describe the bouts of diarrhea visitors suffer from drinking bacteria-tainted tap water.


Scientists found six of the most popular brands of bottled drinking water in Mexico City contain traces of dangerous pesticides, raising questions about the long-term effects of living in the capital of 20 million.


The “Organochlorine Pesticides Residues in Bottled Water from Mexico City” study was conducted by researchers at the Metropolitan University of Xochimilco, in southern Mexico City. The report, published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology this month, found traces of sevent different pesticides in unnamed brands of bottled water from Mexico City.

Only one pesticide, hexachlorocyclohexane, or HCH, was found to exceed drinking water standards, however.


But even legally allowed trace amounts of pesticides are a problem because of “the potential exposure of large populations to low concentrations over long periods of time,” the study said. “Of particular concern are substances that may be carcinogenic and those that have a tendency to bioaccumulate in the organs.”


The authors of the Bulletin study have not revealed the brands of water they tested and declined to comment on their study. Their findings nonetheless raise concerns over what most Mexicans consider the safest source of drinking water.


Mexico is the second biggest bottled water market in the world, behind the United States. Mexicans drink an average of 59 gallons of bottled water every year, the highest rate per capita on earth, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a research and consulting group for the bottled water industry.


Mexico’s list of banned water pollutants is less restrictive than that of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization, said Marisa Mazari, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.


“Mexican regulations should guarantee that the water is fine to drink, but these regulations have to be continually updated,” Mazari said. “When it comes to pesticides the regulations aren’t working.”


Mazari, who was not involved in the Bulletin study, said that the levels of pesticides reported were “very low” but still noteworthy.


“Pesticides have serious health effects,” she said. “They can have reproductive side effects. Consuming pesticides can cause them to accumulate in fatty tissue and can have effects on the liver and kidneys.”


Mexico City draws 70 percent of its water from local wells and 30 percent from the Lerma River basin, Mazari said, meaning that both tap water and bottled water are vulnerable to pollution from landfills, gas stations, industrial runoff and agricultural drainage canals.


The study’s authors recommend the government better regulate the country’s burgeoning bottled water industry and update maximum levels of drinking water contaminants, especially pesticides.


Unlike in the United States, where bottled water in many places is an amenity, Mexicans drink bottled water largely out of necessity.


“Tap water is not recommendable anywhere in Mexico,” Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.


Cordova said he was not familiar with the Bulletin study but was concerned about the quality of both bottled and tap water in Mexico.


He blamed bad bottled water on unscrupulous street sellers who fill bottles with tap water and sell them to unknowing customers.


Cordova, the Health Secretary, admitted that the government is having difficulty keeping track of bottled water produced in the capital.


“What happens is that on some occasions there are clandestine sales (of bottled water),” he said of the growing number of bottled water brands available in Mexico City.


There is, however, by law “a strict standard for (levels of) pesticides” in drinking water in Mexico, Cordova said.


With tap water still unfit to drink, Mexico City residents are left with few options other than trusting bottled water.


Tom Lauria, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), a trade organization for bottled water companies that is located in New York, said it has members that bottle in Mexico City, including Danone and Nestle – along with Coca Cola and Pepsi, the four major bottled water companies in Mexico.


“We certainly meet and sometimes exceed the regulatory standards of the FDA over bottled water, which are already extensive,” he said.


Bottled water is not “tap water in a bottle,” Lauria said. “It has to go through rigorous purification to meet government standards to be called purified.”


Meanwhile, questions linger over why the government has been unable to improve the quality of tap water.


The UN has water improvement programs in countries throughout Latin America, but not Mexico, said Laura Jaloma, Program Assistant for UN-HABITAT in Mexico.


“It’s because there hasn’t been any interest on the part of the government,” she said.


Many chilangos, as Mexico City residents call themselves, are suspicious of attempts to privatize, and theoretically improve, the city’s tap water. The World Water Forum, held here in 2006, brought fierce public protests, for example.


But without reliable tap water and with bottled water booming, the city’s water market has effectively already been privatized, Jaloma said.

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Charges of cross-border church abuses continue

June 18, 2009 

¶ MEXICO CITY – A victims’ group said Thursday that it was filing a new lawsuit in Los Angeles, California, against Mexican and U.S. church officials accused of sheltering a suspected pedophile priest.
¶ The lawsuit accuses Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera of conspiring with Roman Catholic officials in the United States to shelter Nicolas Aguilar, a Mexican priest wanted in California for 19 felony counts of committing lewd acts on a child.
¶ This is the third lawsuit filed by the group, Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, against the Catholic Church for allegedly protecting Aguilar. Two previous lawsuits filed in Los Angeles against the Mexican cardinal by Mexican citizens were dismissed in 2007.
¶ This time, however, the unnamed plaintiff is a U.S. citizen.
¶ “In this case it was a North American boy molested in North American territory,” said Jose Bonilla, a lawyer for SNAP.
¶ Bonilla said he was “practically 100 percent sure” that the plaintiff, identified only as John Doe, would have his day in court. “But it’s going to be a long process,” he said.
¶ In addition to Cardinal Rivera, the lawsuit charges the archdiocese of Tehuacan in the Mexican state of Puebla, where Rivera worked at the time, the archdiocese of Los Angeles and the California Department of Education with failing to protect the plaintiff from Rev. Aguilar.
¶ Bonilla said the abuse occurred in 1988 while Aguilar was in Los Angeles. He said the new lawsuit will show Rivera transferred the priest to Los Angeles earlier that year even though he knew he had abused children in Mexico.
¶ Aguilar fled back to Mexico nine months later, where he continued working as a priest for years despite attempts to extradite him to the United States. He currently remains at large in Mexico.
¶ SNAP officials said they hoped the civil lawsuit might eventually lead to criminal convictions for church officials who had obstructed justice.
¶ “We think that there is at least some hope now,” said Joaquin Aguilar Mendez, SNAP’s Mexico Director and no relation to the accused priest.
¶ “We know that we can’t have justice as long as Nicolas, who abused so many, remains free,” he said. “No one has looked for him. I understand he is still working. He is still protected. But at least those who acted so negligently knowing who he was will pay for what they have done.”
¶ Aguilar Mendez was the plaintiff in the original lawsuit against the priest. In that lawsuit, also filed in Los Angeles against Rivera, Aguilar Mendez says Aguilar raped him in Mexico City in 1994. Aguilar Mendez was 12 years old at the time of the alleged crime.
¶ Aguilar Mendez said his own case against Aguilar is still pending in California. He said new evidence, including the taped testimony of Rivera and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, shows the two cardinals lied about their knowledge of the priest’s abusive past.
¶ The archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the U.S., settled almost 500 abuse cases for $660 million in July 2007, by far the largest payout in the church’s sexual abuse scandal. Aguilar Mendez said a dozen of those cases were against Rev. Aguilar, but that his case and the case of the unnamed U.S. plaintiff were not among them.
¶ “This is not over,” said Aguilar Mendez of his long struggle to bring the priest to justice. “I hope in the near future to finally see him seated (in court), being judged.”

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Narco-media? Drug cartels tighten grip on border towns with control of local newspapers


Not content with owning much of the police, armed forces and government, Mexico’s narcotraficantes are quickly moving to tighten their grasp on yet another of the country’s institutions: the media.

Newspapers in northern Mexico, near the country’s notoriously porous border with the United States, are increasingly under the thumb of violent drug cartels, according to several prominent Mexican journalists.

“Border newsrooms are being taken over by the drug traffickers,” said Jorge Luis Serra, an investigative reporter from Mexico who now lives and works in McAllen, Texas.

“The way they operate is they take over the police department, they take over city hall, and then they take over the newspapers,” added Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

Corchado and Serra each have decades of experience covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their comments came at a panel discussion called “Mexico’s Pitfalls for Journalists” on April 27 at the Overseas Press Club in New York.

For more than two years, drug related violence has terrorized Mexico, especially in the north where drug cartels vie for lucrative supply routes to the United States. In the past, violence was largely limited to feuds between rival cartels. But the conflict broadened when Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón, began an offensive against the cartels shortly after his election in 2006. The resulting war has shaken the country and left few regions untouched. Until the outbreak of the A/H1N1 influenza in April, drug violence dominated the headlines, obscuring even the upcoming legislative election on July 5.

But the violence is itself a symptom of a broader disease. Only a decade free of what was effectively one-party rule, Mexican institutions remain extremely weak. On Saturday, armed men disguised as police officers broke into a jail in the northern state of Zacatecas. More than fifty members of the Gulf Cartel escaped in the audacious jailbreak, and federal officials suspect the narcotraficantes received help from prison guards and local officials.

It may come as no surprise, then, that in a country where jails can be broken open like piggybanks, newspapers are not free of the drug cartels’ influence. But cartel control over border newspapers could signal a deepening of the country’s troubles, already grave enough that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have had to explicitly deny that Mexico is at risk of becoming a “failed state.”

In Mexico, journalists have long been a target of both the drug cartels and corrupt government officials.

“Mexico has become the Americas’ most dangerous country for journalists,” said Peter Price, from Reporters Without Borders, who moderated the panel discussion. Forty-six journalists have been killed and eight have disappeared in Mexico since 2000, he said. Corchado has himself been the target of a death threat for his reporting, likely from a cartel.

But cartel influence over newspaper editors, reporters and their coverage is relatively new. It threatens to plunge the battle between government forces and the cartels into the dark just as the conflict reaches fever pitch. Already, the cartels have begun using the media to maximize the efficacy of their attacks.

“When [the cartels] come into the city, they will give media leaders money to give coverage to the narcomantas,” Corchado said, referring to the billboard-sized warnings put up along highways or in plazas. Some times, newspapers are notified ahead of time by the cartels of an upcoming “major news event” that they must cover, only for a decapitated body to be dumped in a public square. “If you don’t run that, you’re in trouble,” he said.

“There are some [journalists] who are on the take,” Corchado added.

As with much of the news coming from Mexico these days, the rise of the narcomedia leaves little room for optimism. But Serra said he saw hope in a recent trend of journalists trained not in Mexico but at the University of Texas – El Paso.

“They’re beginning to write a new story,” Serra said. “A new generation of journalists with more knowledge of the ethics and more commitment to why journalism is important. There is some light at the end of the tunnel.”

There was a brief pause when an audience member asked the two reporters: What keeps you going, despite the danger you face from the cartels?

“We believe in journalism,” Serra answered. “We believe that journalism has a function in society, and that function is to hold leaders accountable.”

“I try not to look at it as a narco story, it’s really a democracy story,” echoed Corchado.

“If you’re a foreign correspondent in Mexico, to be quite honest, it’s hard to ignore narcotrafficking,” he said, reaching for a glass of cold water next to his microphone.

“We don’t want to continue covering drug trafficking, but we have no choice. The narco story is one that people are interested in.”

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Decades later, King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech still resonates



Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967 © John C. Goodwin

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967 © John C. Goodwin


From Vietnam to Iraq, King to Obama, parallels abound

—Michael E. Miller

New York, March 28, 2008—Exactly one year before his death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. risked everything—his career, the support of black Americans, the civil rights movement itself—to denounce the war in Vietnam. 

Speaking at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side on April 4, 1967, he called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and decried the disproportionate number of blacks who had been killed during three years of fighting.  But the underlying argument of his speech was simpler still: real change, whether full civil rights for blacks or an end to poverty for all Americans, could not occur until the war ended.

With the United States once again in a foreign war, this time in Iraq, the message is eerily familiar.  In fact, King’s effort to link poverty and inequality to the war in Vietnam is almost identical to recent remarks made by Illinois Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

“At a time when we’re on the brink of recession – when neighborhoods have For Sale signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs – ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war,” Obama said in a speech in West Virginia two weeks ago.

“Obama has basically said that it is impossible to spend billions in Iraq and think you have enough money to provide housing and social programs for Americans,” said Manning Marable, history professor at Columbia University.  “King’s economic argument against the war was the same” in ’67.

But as the fortieth anniversary of King’s assassination draws near, only a handful of Americans remember what is now known as his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.  With race, poverty and war once again at the heart of a national debate and a presidential election, their stories are both sketches of past struggles and glimpses of the future.

Four decades ago, Sarah Cunningham, 82, almost missed King’s now-famous speech.

“I was so nonchalant about the whole thing,” she said after Easter service.  “For me, getting to Riverside early meant getting there five minutes beforehand, but on that evening, that was a little too late.”

“The church was packed,” she said.  “Luckily I saw an usher I knew and he found us the last seats in the upper balcony.”  Cunningham, a retired church writer, still lives near Riverside.

“It was an amazing event,” she said, recalling the energy inside the church on what was a cool, early spring evening.  “It was a very moving address, and he did a marvelous job of relating his agenda to getting us out of Vietnam.”

That night marked the first time that King publicly voiced his own opposition to the war, linking U.S. militarism abroad to the trampling of human rights at home. The interfaith group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) organized the event, which began at 8 p.m.  For months, CALCAV had urged the U.S. government to end its bombing campaign and begin peace talks with the Northern Vietnamese.

Though King’s speech was the last of four, it quickly became apparent that his would be the most controversial.  For months, King had debated with his advisors whether to speak at a large anti-war protest at the United Nations building in New York, scheduled for April 15.  According to Richard Fernandez, then CALCAV’s executive director, members of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were worried that his message would be lost among the 20 speeches planned for that day. 

King making notes in the margins of his speech, shortly before speaking © John C. Goodwin

King making notes in the margins of his speech, shortly before speaking © John C. Goodwin

King’s advisors, on the other hand, feared that his joining the anti-war campaign would spell disaster for the civil rights movement, already stalled after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, in the eyes of many whites, had resolved the political disenfranchisement of blacks.  Many were also worried that King speaking out against the war would divide the SCLC and undermine its legitimacy and access to the White House, Fernandez said.

Finally, King and his advisors agreed that he would give a speech a few days before the UN protest.  When King’s top aide, Andrew Young, contacted Fernandez, he suggested the Riverside Church as a venue for the crucial speech.

“I don’t think anybody would have projected the impact it was going to have,” Fernandez said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania.  “We got pretty good hostility from the press the morning after.”

Fernandez helped distribute advance copies of the speech to newspapers and radio stations across the country.  Unsurprisingly, some of the most biting criticism came from within the civil rights movement.  Roy Wilkins, then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, criticized the speech.  He argued that “civil rights groups [did not] have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.” 

In an editorial titled “Dr. King’s Error” published two days after the speech, The New York Times wrote that King had fused “two public problems that are distinct and separate.  By drawing them together, King has done a disservice to both.  The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests; the political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes.”

“Dr. King has a lot more friends in 2008 who say they marched with him than he did before he died,” Fernandez said, alluding to the fierce criticism—later withdrawn or forgotten—that King received in the year of anti-war speeches preceding his death.

As George Todd remembers it, much of “Beyond Vietnam” was devoted to explaining that the peace movement and the civil rights movement were one and the same.

“Everybody around him was resisting it, and King said, ‘No, no.  It’s the same agenda,’” said Todd, a retired reverend who attends Riverside services.

“A lot of us had been demonstrating against the war, so when we learned that King was going to speak here we all turned out,” he said.

“The speech was electric.  When King reached the epiphany at the end, we were all floating,” Todd said, growing emotional. 


King’s closing line read: “If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” 

“He shouted it at us and everyone was roaring,” Todd said.  “Those were exciting days.”

King delivering his speech, later dubbed "Beyond Vietnam," at Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, April 4, 1967 © John C. Goodwin

King delivering his speech, later dubbed "Beyond Vietnam," at Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, April 4, 1967 © John C. Goodwin

That night, in front of more than 2,100 people, King laid out a five-step plan culminating in the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam.  Near the end of his speech, however, King broadened his focus, arguing that the United States was “on the wrong side of a world revolution” and had betrayed its ideals for self-interest.  Still, King said, he held out hope for a different America—one that could still be a beacon of hope in the world, if only it could end the war and put people before commodities.

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” King said. “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Forty-one years later, Obama’s call for an end to the war in Iraq and the restoration of America’s image abroad has stirred-up old memories of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

Sarah Cunningham, the retired writer, voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the New York primary but has since come to favor Obama.  “Perhaps I see in him something that has gone beyond even Dr. King,” she said.  “Obama’s the one who can best help us understand the rest of the world.”

But Obama’s criticism of the war in Iraq comes within a much different context than did King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.  Today, unlike 1967, a majority of Americans are opposed to the war.

“The idea that a majority of Americans, regardless of race and economic background, could come together around a progressive agenda for peace, that was the core of King’s coalition, and it’s the core of Obama’s campaign today,” said Prof. Marable.

One year to the day after his speech at Riverside, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

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