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A Literary Love Affair

Cancun Bashing by Jules Siegel

Part Three: The Myth of the Narco-Resort

One statement in Marc Cooper's The Nation story is so infuriatingly deceptive that it sounds like McCarthyism: "The current mayor's brother, a prominent hotel operator, has also done prison time on money-laundering charges, and experts say Cancún is still a major transit point for the drug trade."

The hotelier in question was accused of selling a small hotel to a suspected (not convicted) drug dealer. He made no attempt to hide this. All funds were transferred through his regular commercial accounts and the deal was registered with Hacienda (the Treasury). There was no evidence of any kind linking him to any illicit activities. He was held for about a year and half and found innocent. One of the other three principal defendants was found innocent of all charges after having been held in Mexico's maximum security Almoloya prison for almost two years.

The third defendant, former state governor Mario Villanueva Madrid, became rich on the bribes for the privatization of the Cancun water and garbage systems, and selling permissions to construct hotels in what is now called the Riviera Maya. He got on the wrong side of then-president Ernesto Zedillo, openly defied the PRI national executive committee, and was punished for disobedience by being prosecuted for supposedly helping cocaine dealers. Since drug trafficking control is a Federal function that the local police are forbidden to touch, it's not clear what he did exactly. The state's best witnesses retracted their testimony and said that they had been pressured and threatened.

As part of the prosecution, Zedillo sent a crack team of dozens of Federal agents with law degrees here. They interrogated hundreds of people. Despite the almost servile cooperation of Mexico's court system in major drug cases, they failed to produce a single important conviction, and they have never demonstrated any evidence that cocaine money financed a single Cancun hotel. Villanueva has not yet been convicted of anything, and some of the principal charges have been dismissed, but he is still being held in Almoloya under very harsh conditions.

Cooper cites unnamed "experts" who say that Cancun is a major transit point for cocaine It's not true. All cocaine smuggling takes place in the unpopulated southern regions of Quintana Roo. There's too much heat in Cancun for this sort of thing.

Cooper identifies "one Cancún businessman, 49-year-old Armando Rangel Diaz," as "the great-grandson of a former president of Mexico." The most likely candidate for this ancestor would be Porfirio Díaz, the ruthless dictator who was overthrown at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. If so, this is a little like identifying a Herr Schickelgruber as the descendent of a former German chancellor. Did Cooper know who the former president was? If so, why didn't me identify him by name?

Mr. Rangel Díaz reports, "We have half the population without sewers, but we have 7,000 liquor stores, half of them clandestine, 4,000 prostitutes who each pay the police $10 a month and 400 crack houses that also produce about $2 million a month in police protection money. Do you think this is just?"

Crack is not available in Cancun. Freebase (often called crack although it's a different form of ccoaine) can be obtained, but the main product, as everywhere, is the one-gram packet of heavily cut cocaine. Cocaine is dealt by individuals. There are no crack houses where destitute cocaine users live together and deal. Liquor stores are a dreadful problem, but people do like to drink. It's not clear whether he's annoyed about the number of prostitutes or the bribes. Prostitution in Mexico legal but soliciting and pimping are crimes. Bribery is illegal, of course, but not exactly a novel feature of Mexican culture.

With awesome irrelevance, he says, "Do you think this is fair treatment by a $10 billion industry?"

Yes, tourism does attract prostitution, but if it's not a crime, why bring it up? The health authorities do their best to make sure that prostitutes come in for checks and receive their credentials. Some prefer to pay bribes to the police when caught without them. What can the Hotel Association can do something about this? One is tempted to ask Rangel Díaz whether or not he's ever paid a bribe himself or visited a prostitute.

He also complains bitterly about corruption in the schools and the lack of public libraries. The "voluntary" quotas as a sore point for parents, but they are mostly used to provide maintenance and other services that the educational authorities do not provide. Principals and other school officials who mismanage these funds have been arrested on the complaints of the affected parents groups. With the new term beginning, no child in Cancun is without place in a public school. The schools are not lavish by any means, but all three of my children attended public schools in Cancun and received a more than adequate education. My daughter, Faera, who lived with us here for ten years, returned to the United States and passed the GED in the first percentile. She was accepted by NYU and is now a court interpreter in the Bay Area.

The public library issue sounds great, except for the fact that although the country is anywhere from 85-95% literate, Mexicans don't read very much. All the daily newspapers in Mexico City (23 at last count) do not add up to a million copies a day. Reforma, the country's largest newspaper, sells less than 300,000 daily.  Only one major bookstore has managed to survive here. There's a religious bookstore, one that sells accounting manuals, and there are small book sections (mostly technical) in a few other business establishments. But taking him at face value, what has he himself done about this other than commission a study? The American public library system was essentially created by Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy.

Summing up: This is just a hatchet job on Cancun. It seems that even leftists are prejudiced against Mexicans whether they live in the United States or Mexico. They are required to be campesinos and wear sombreros and sleep under cacti. They don't all want to do that. They want to live in cement houses and have high speed Internet connections and go to discos. They think that Cancun is just great, but a little screwed up, and its needs should be taken more seriously by the federal government. Meanwhile, Cancun is the one place in Mexico that's importing rather than exporting people. It's not perfect. Therefore, it's bad. What kind of reporting is that?

Cancun is an entirely home-grown Mexican solution to otherwise intractable unemployment in the Yucatan Peninsula. It's worked very well. The social and environmental costs are significant, but everything has a price, a cost and a value. Cancun's value far outweighs its costs.

I do share the very great concern in Cancun about the fragility of our environment, which is very delicately balanced and could tip over into the disaster that people like Marc Cooper are already calling it.

The RIU hotel chain was recently fined more than $3.5 million for building an entire hotel without permission as an annex to a new hotel for which they did have permission. The local federal environment director was relieved among accusations that he had taken bribes in this and other situations. The Fox administration has turned out to be quite a disappointment environmentally. The previous president, Ernesto Zedillo was an avid SCUBA diver who often visited Cancun and intervened very decisively to protect the lagoons and the ocean.

I can't stand even looking the hotel RIU built because it is sickeningly grotesque and out of scale. At the same time, I have friends who have small businesses nearby that have struggled to survive for the past few years because of the competition from newer shopping centers. They love the new hotel because it's bringing them customers.

Fonatur now wants to develop the third and final stage of the island. A giant project on the mainland called Puerto Cancun proposes cutting canals into the mangroves to make room for new boat slips. These projects will be subjected to very intense and well-deserved public scrutiny in the coming months. Whether or not they go ahead as planned or are modified, we need a really serious investment in correcting both existing environmental problems and those that are on the horizon.

Marc Cooper's article was disappointing because he attacked Cancun as a social entity. Maybe he thought he was helping us. He could have been a lot more useful had he recognized that Cancun is basically a good place that's in grave danger of being overwhelmed by greed. We need serious coverage of the points I raise above, not a viciously unfair and inaccurate hatchet job.

1: Cancun Bashing is in Season
2: The $7.50 Ice Cream Cone
3: The Myth of the Narco-Resort
4: An Open Letter to The Nation's Marc Cooper

 


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