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La Semana: Planes, trains and...trains
Of politicians, UFOs and other curiosities
Welcome to a Tuesday edition of The Mexpatriate.
These last weeks of summer brought Mexico the sequined one-woman economic windfall known as Taylor Swift, a slightly weakening peso, new SEP textbooks still under fire (literally in some places) as kids went back to school, heavy rains across the country, and on the last day of August, the first official 2024 presidential candidate: Xóchitl Gálvez.
Tomorrow the ruling party Morena will announce their chosen “defender of the fourth transformation” and pre-pre-election season will really heat up.
Meanwhile, President López Obrador and members of his cabinet got aboard the little engine that could—the Tren Maya—in Campeche on Friday for a “supervision tour” of several sections. Social media is buzzing with videos of the train, including an unexpected stop of over an hour near Chichén Itzá, which the president chalked up to a “technical review”. The videos showed the train moving at a leisurely pace (it’s supposed to reach 160-200 km/hr when operational), which AMLO has stressed is part of the testing phase.
Xóchitl gets a head start on 2024
Xóchitl Gálvez has been the favorite to win the opposition “Frente Amplio por México” (FAM) candidacy almost since she strode on the scene. As the “Frente” became less “Amplio”—first, by narrowing to two PAN and one PRI candidate (leaving out the PRD aspirants), and then by Santiago Creel (PAN) withdrawing to back Gálvez—her road to victory looked increasingly assured. According to President López Obrador, it was never in doubt.
He has said repeatedly that the opposition coalition’s process was a sham, as Gálvez was the one chosen by the “oligarchs” behind the scenes. Morena has faced similar accusations, with many believing that AMLO chose Sheinbaum as his successor long before the aspirants started touring the country to win favor.
AMLO’s statements were at least somewhat prophetic, as the FAM coalition truncated its selection process, which originally included a vote as its final stage, to be held Sunday. However, last Wednesday, the FAM announced the results of their second round of polling, and Gálvez beat her rival, PRI Senator Beatriz Paredes by 15 points. Paredes effectively withdrew on Thursday, saying that Gálvez’s victory was inevitable. On Sunday, Xóchitl Gálvez was anointed as the opposition candidate at the Ángel de la Independencia in Mexico City. Morena will announce its own candidate tomorrow (Sept. 6) with polls showing Claudia Sheinbaum holding her lead at 33.2%, followed by Marcelo Ebrard at 24.3% according to Consulta Mitofsky.
Gálvez has been presented as a harbinger of hope for the motley opposition coalition of three historical rivals, which has consistently polled below any potential Morena contender for the presidency. “They have been saying there’s no opposition,” said Gálvez at her Sunday speech. “Today there is opposition! Hear it loud and clear, this is where the opposition is.”
The logic here is that Gálvez’s political style (direct, unpretentious) and socioeconomic background (from a poor family, started out selling gelatinas with her mother) have more appeal to the average Mexican voter, one who could otherwise vote for Morena. This is a familiar but very challenging political game: how to pick a candidate who is “on brand” for party identity, but maintains appeal to the broader voting public.
But what is the FAM identity?
The PAN and PRI are both tarnished by scandals of recent administrations (and in the PRI’s case, seven decades of one-party rule), and since the PAN is on the right and the PRD on the left of the political spectrum, their union will always look like a marriage of convenience. The FAM’s strongest (if not their only) pitch is that they aren’t Morena. But is this enough to motivate turnout? Can Gálvez’s charisma and comfort with slang overcome voter squeamishness about the PAN and PRI?
In a strident speech made at the opening session of congress on Friday, Gálvez said that in AMLO’s term “there was not a transformation” but “destruction”, and went on to highlight violence and insecurity as “the people’s main concern and the country’s greatest pain”. She described AMLO’s security slogan of “hugs not bullets” as “a criminal notion” and said it’s time for criminals, not citizens, to live in fear.
Morena legislators were incensed, calling the speech a “campaign rally”, with some yelling at Gálvez: “the gelatina isn’t going to set!”
At her Sunday rally, Gálvez took a more conciliatory tone, declaring she is politically “color-blind”. She wore a Mexican pink huipil, avoiding association with the PAN blue, PRD yellow or PRI red, but as some have pointed out, choosing the color of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) logo.
“We’re not going to continue dividing Mexico. Mexico needs unity,” she said to the crowd.
One of President López Obrador’s ambitions is to revive passenger train travel in Mexico, claiming he will have 3,000 kilometers of new tracks finished by the end of his sexenio in 2024. “Just as we talk about the rescue of Pemex and the rescue of the electrical industry, this is the rescue of railways,” he said in July.
The Tren Maya in the Yucatán peninsula (1,525 km) and the trans-isthmus railway (214 km) are the best-known projects on the agenda, but this administration is also pushing for urban trains in the Valley of México, including the long-delayed Mexico City-Toluca train.
Mexico’s first major passenger rail line connected Veracruz to Mexico City, inaugurated in 1873, during the heyday of railways all over the world. Mexico’s last major operating passenger trains closed in 1998, though the tourist train “El Chepe” still covers 350 km of tracks between Los Mochis, Sinaloa and Creel, Chihuahua. Both the Tren Maya and the trans-isthmus train are utilizing existing tracks in some sections—in fact, the isthmus of Tehuantepec railway was first completed in 1894, but by the time of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, its glory days of cargo transport were numbered. Passenger train travel continued on the railway until the 1950s.
And in other transportation news, the purchase of the Mexicana airlines brand by the Mexican government was confirmed on Aug. 10. The brand will be used for a new military-operated national airline, which is supposed to launch ticket sales this month. AMLO has promoted this state-run airline as a way to make tickets more accessible, and has also leaned into some nostalgia—which seems to be a theme in his transportation policy-making. Mexicana was founded in 1921 and was once the national airline but it was privatized during Vicente Fox’s administration, and went bankrupt in 2013.
Mexican pharmacies and fentanyl
In June the L.A. Times published a chilling investigative piece on counterfeit pills sold in Mexican pharmacies in tourist hotspots, which highlighted how the scourge of fentanyl-laced pills could start spreading on this side of the border. They reported that of 55 pills purchased from 29 pharmacies in eight cities, just over 50% were fakes. And of the opioids obtained, one-third tested positive for fentanyl.
On Aug. 10, the health regulator Cofepris shut down 23 pharmacies in Quintana Roo for suspicious activity, including selling controlled medications without a prescription and possible adulteration of pills. While the authorities said some of these pharmacies specifically catered to foreign tourists, the domestic market for pirated prescription drugs has also expanded recently—as much as 78% since 2019. Mexico has suffered from medicine shortages throughout AMLO’s term, and the most recent has affected psychiatric medications including alprazolam (Xanax) and others, which could lead to patients seeking out the drugs on the black market.
Mexico’s stance on fentanyl is that it’s not manufactured here, it’s not consumed here. The unspoken final clause: it’s only smuggled from here.
When President López Obrador waxes lyrical on the importance of the social fabric—family, community and keeping an eye on your kids—he is implying that there is a moral and community failure in the U.S. that has led to escalating addiction. The image is a familiar one: the endless American appetite for drugs, a gaping maw that inhales, injects and ingests all the illicit substances it can. And it is true that the U.S. is the world’s biggest market, and this has long applied to the shadow markets as well.
But when it comes to fentanyl, this narrative falls flat. The numbers are simply too monstrous: preliminary data from the CDC shows 105,452 drug overdose deaths in 2022, with nearly 83,000 linked to opioids. Drug overdose has become a leading cause of death in the 18-45 age group.
While there is no doubt that pharmaceutical companies and doctors who promoted powerful opioid painkillers created a huge number of addicts (who then turned to heroin, and now fentanyl), the problem the U.S. faces today has another dimension. Fentanyl has seeped into the drug supply as a cheap, highly potent additive and as in any black market, lack of regulation equals lack of quality control. While “cutting” high-profit street drugs like cocaine with other substances has an established history, it usually wouldn’t end up killing the user (though this has certainly happened prior to fentanyl). But the margin for error with fentanyl is very small: a 2 milligram dose can be lethal. Fentanyl is poisoning people who didn’t intend to take it. Some may have been using another drug, maybe methamphetamines or cocaine. Others may have taken what they thought were benzodiazepines like Xanax, or stimulants like Adderall.
The gravity of the situation has led to some serious scapegoating by U.S. law enforcement, and also rhetoric in the Republican primaries about sending the military into Mexico. While the DEA did not even consider fentanyl a potential problem as recently as 2015, today they are “laser-focused” on the painkiller and on Mexican traffickers, in particular “Los Chapitos”. From the U.S. perspective, Mexico’s drug cartels are the biggest culprits responsible for flooding the country with poison. Unfortunately for law enforcement, fentanyl is the ideal product for smuggling: since small amounts are incredibly potent, it can be transported easily. Trying to estimate how much fentanyl is moving across the border is like trying to count how many sharks are in the sea by looking for their fins on the surface.
Mexico has never been on par with the levels of drug use in the U.S. and up until now, synthetic opioid abuse is no exception. In 2019, a total of 2,619 people died from overdosing on a “psychoactive substance”, according to government epidemiological data. Of these deaths, 90% were alcohol-related for men, and 70% for women. The Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell has acknowledged that opioid-related deaths are under-reported (according to official tallies, a mere 26 deaths in 2020). If there is a stealth entry of fentanyl into the drug supply, it seems inevitable these numbers will rise.
Can UFOs be regulated?
Despite the fact that this year UFOs came to C-SPAN, it still seems far-fetched to me that congressional hearings are now the place to discuss flying saucers.
“There is no doubt, Mexico could become one of the leaders in regulating this phenomenon.” This is journalist Jaime Maussan, who is also an avuncular Mexican expert on OVNIs— as they’re known in Spanish—discussing the upcoming hearing he will participate in at the Chamber of Deputies on Sept. 12. “If Mexico can normalize the criteria and include them in the Law of Protection of Mexican Airspace it would become the first country in the world to tacitly accept the presence of non-humans on our planet.”
Morena deputy Sergio Gutiérrez Luna is presenting the event with Maussan, and has said experts from all over the world are joining. Maussan produces his own television show called “The Great Mysteries of the Third Millennium”, and has been panned by scientists as a charlatan, as well as by fellow UFO experts, some claiming he’s a fraud. But in a 2008 profile in Gatopardo magazine, Maussan seemed undeterred: “How can they say so many people lie? So many pilots, investigators? So many videos and photographs?”
A 3-D rendering of Tenochtitlan
I’ve been mesmerized by this detailed, realistic recreation of the capital of the Mexica empire, showing it in comparison with Mexico City today. Definitely worth checking out the whole project, but here is a taste:
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