The main theme of Paul Theroux’s recent travelogue on Mexico is economic and social exploitation. Large corporations have usurped the role of governments through global free trade agreements to increase their profits. He cites the narrow band of factories – appliance, textile, pharmaceutical and automobile manufactures who picked up and moved across the Mexican border to exploit cheaper labour, as evidence. The small Mexican farmer was dealt a significant economic blow by genetically modified crops and competition from huge American factory farms as a result of the 1994 NAFTA agreement.
The practice of some NGO’s and aid organizations to decide on what impoverished communities need, without actually consulting them is too common he says. e.g., fresh water is needed and a school is built. Foreign aid as practiced in the third world, is essentially a failure, futile in relieving poverty and often harmful, relieving the ills of a few at the expense of the many. Pretty harsh words. Paul cites his extensive travel in Africa over fifty years as the basis of his first hand conclusions. He sees the same failures in Mexico.
The Mexican drug cartels known as narcos, have exploited the safety of people. Everyone is very cautious and lives in a gated secure community whenever possible. The U.S. is about to declare these narcos as terrorist organizations. However, it’s the huge American demand for illicit drugs which fuels this mayhem.
I stuggled with this book. Parts of it were interesting and other parts were somewhat boring. When he talks about Mexican social trends, cultural issues and literature, he is at his best. When he bogs down is a small town to interview obscure individuals, the story slows to a crawl. The “plain of snakes” does not actually exist per se but this title serves to sell more copies of the book no doubt. In any case, after writing more than 50 published books, he has earned the right to ramble on. I would give it a 3 out of 5 star rating.
Looking much forward to getting down to Mexico again and feeling the warmth ourselves firsthand.
Everyone. has to die once and then face the consequences.
One of the more curious and macabre aspects of Mexican culture is their reverence for death. Nosa Senora de la Santa Meurte – Our Lady of Holy Death – has a huge cult following that is growing fast across Mexico claiming millions of adherents. Outlawed by the Catholic Church, this folk saint is associated with healing, protection and safe delivery to the afterlife. While we in the north tend to regard death as horrorful and not to be discussed socially. In Mexico they openly acknowledge death and celebrate it on the Day of the Dead with public parades and festivals.
Many of the death ritualized masquerades in Mexico had their origins in the Aztec culture, an empire of blood sacrifices and skulls and glittering masks. “During the 20th century, a gay familiarity with death became a cornerstone of national identity. Mexico’s nationalization of death had a more nihilistic and lighthearted component. It is a modern refurbishment of a medieval theme.” writes Claudio Lomnitz as quoted by Paul Theroux. “The Mexican chases after death, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, and sleeps with it. He thinks of it as his favorite plaything and his lasting love.”
Is it any wonder? There are over 35,000 murders annually in Mexico – that’s almost 100 per day, a country with a population of 130 million. In 2018 in the U.S there were 15,500 reported murders. In Canada during 2017, police reported 660 murders. Mexico’s violent past – the War of Independence, the Mexican American War, the Mexican Revolution, earthquakes and now the Mexican Drug War, only serve to reinforce the constant reminder, that death will strike each one at any moment.
How morbid you may think. I tend to agree. For we gringos, (actually Canadians are not Gringos, only Americans are) it is hard to get our heads around this “pastime”. I am not a particular fan of the Day of the Dead, Gothic masquerade parties, nor even much for Halloween anymore.
But wait, there is something redeeming to this. Practicing a frequent remembrance of death serves to make life more intense. It increases one’s vitality. It’s like waking up every morning and saying, “Hey I’m still here.” as Paul Theroux reflects. We have seen this vitality in the eyes of Mexicans we meet – a reverence, gentleness, calmness, patience, humbleness and acceptance of life and death – the way it is. Memento mori – remember you will die – is a subtext of Mexican life.
Guerrero is one of the most dangerous and crime ridden states in Mexico. According to Wikipedia, “The Guerrero State is listed as Level 4 – Do Not Travel by the United States Department of State stating armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas of Guerrero. Members of these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence towards travelers. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide assistance here. It is recommended that nobody travel to Guerrero if possible.” Acapulco as a tourist destination is out.
The main reason for this area’s carnage is massive poppy cultivation in the local hills. The poppy species grown here is a major source of opium which is used by the local drug cartels (known as Narcos) to produce heroin, which they then export to the U.S. In July of this year, Mexicos’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) announced that the government will provide marketplace price supports for corn and other grains as part of a strategy to give farmers an alternative to planting these illicit crops.
On September 26, 2014, 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in Guerrero were forcibly abducted and disappeared in nearby Iguala. The students annually commandeer several buses to carry them to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre where hundreds of student protesters and onlookers were shot by the army.
Well this year was different. Paul Theroux speculates that the bus the 43 students commandeered happened to be full of hidden illicit drugs. The corrupt local authorities took this as an affront and ordered municipal police to abduct and kill the students. The government tried to blame the whole thing on a local crime syndicate who supposedly had mistaken the students for rival cartel members. No one accepted this story line. The perpetrators and their motive remains unknown.
To this day, not a trace of the 43 missing students has ever been found. Their parents demanded again this week that police involved in the disappearance and the officials who botched the original investigation, face justice.
As Paul mentions in On the Plain of Snakes, when an oppressed group in Mexico airs a grievance, it doesn’t mumble. It takes to the streets with resolve, holds a demonstration in the main plaza, camps out in front of a ministry in a defiant vigil, burns a bus, blocks a motorway. The parents of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students met with AMLO and gave the federal government 2 more months to produce results, or they will increase the intensity of their protests.
The government claims that it is making progress in the reinvestigation, but objects to the timeframe pressure being imposed. We shall see what happens, as Marie and I will be down there in January when the deadline expires… In the meantime, let us pray that justice is achieved for the parents of these missing sons.
I would like to start a series on Understanding Mexico. They seem to have some serious problems down there. Not sure how far I will get with this as I am not knowledgable about Mexican history, their culture or language. However we do spend winters there and I would like to learn and share more about this beautiful place and people. I am part way through Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey, and will be using it as my road guide.
The socio-economic problems in Mexico are primarily due to political ones. According to Paul, Mexico was bankrupted in the 19th century due to three major conflicts:
With a bankrupt nation, the only way to sustain political and security institutions is through corruption ie. instituting an inbuilt bribe tax. What this means is that in Mexico, you cannot distinguish the good guys from the bad ones. For example the police are paid very low wages in Mexico and some are known for “shaking people down” – namely insisting on a cash bribe or you will be locked or roughed up. Hence some police are not there to serve and protect as we know it in Canada, but rather perhaps, to line their own pockets to pay their bills. The other side of this is that if you have or will be committing a crime, you can pay some police to look the other way. Frightening, isn’t it?
The next part of the equation is that America criminalizes drugs like cocaine, heroin, even marijuana. This creates a huge market for illicit drugs that Mexico is happy to supply. Drugs flow north, money and guns flow south. The drug gangs referred to as “the Mafia” by locals control this trade and are not willing to give it up without a fight. Hence the extreme violence between the drug cartels and anyone else caught in the middle.
Bring in the military to a region and the killing rate goes up. This is exactly what happened in Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, TX a few years back. The military are expert killers and not accountable for who they target. In fact, Theroux says the drug cartels hire ex-military staff precisely because they are such good killers.
So what is good about Mexico other than the weather? Why even risk going there you might ask? It is because the average Mexican you meet, faced with all this institutional dysfunction, becomes very self-reliant, family focussed, more religious, entrepreneurial and charitable, willing to help others, since they can’t count on the police or government for assistance.
As the saying goes within the expats community “Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart, you can never go home.” We too have found this to be very true.
Ioco (Imperial Oil Co) Refinery was built in 1914 in Port Moody (Vancouver), BC and closed in 1995 when it was converted to a petroleum products terminal. I worked there as a chemical process engineer from 1974-78. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The refinery converted 40,000 bbl/day of light Alberta crude oil to a wide range of products including gasoline and diesel fuels, aviation and marine fuels, home heating oil, propane, butane, bunker fuels, asphalt and specialty chemicals like xylene. Crude oil arrived by pipeline; products were shipped out via pipeline, truck, rail, ship and barge. As such it was a small medium complex refinery. The diagram below is indicative of this facility. We did not produce petroleum coke or hydrogen.
I was contact engineer for the crude distillation unit and then subsequently for the amine treating and Claus sulfur plant. As contact engineer I was responsible for monitoring and reporting on the operation, dialoguing with the operators and equipment techs on issues as well as for special projects such as optimizing the thickness of insulation to install on heated oil tanks, designing pumping and product blender installations, etc.
A good part of the job was problem solving. We were taught that “A problem is a deviation with a cause unknown.” We were given lot’s of training on how to solve problems. Example problems: “We are flaring off too much propane this week because the capacity of the merox treater is down;” or, “The output of the sulphur plant is low because we can’t control the air to H2S ratio accurately.” Fix it! You get the idea.
I remember my first day, entering the control room glittering with controls and screens, slide rule and text book in hand, thinking I was going to change the world. The operator looks up at me and scowls to himself, “not another green engineer that I’ll have to break in.” Well I quickly learned to be humble, ask questions, build trust and gradually the operators would open up and tell you what the problem was from their perspective e.g, “I can’t increase the flow to the crude unit without the safety valve blowing on the distillate recycle tank. Maybe the safety valve pressure setting should be checked.”
Once the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union went on strike. I think it was over the imposition of wage and price controls by Pierre Trudeau. Well we engineers and management staff took over operating the refinery. I remember working 7 x 12 hour midnight shifts in a row. We would walk around the units checking the colour of a gauze indicator pinned to our jacket. If it started to turn brown you were in danger of being gassed to death by H2S. I got so tired and stressed out I had an anxiety attack and quit smoking for awhile. Probably a good thing, lol.
The best thing about working at Ioco was the people. I made so many friends there. We skied together, golfed, fished and partied. We had fun and felt a real calling to working there. Imperial Oil was and probably still is an extremely well managed company. However it is a tough company not unwilling to make changes which affect people. After 4 years at the refinery, I moved to their Product Distribution Division for another 4 years.
About the demise of Ioco Refinery. Remember that pipeline, the Trans Mountain that brought crude oil from Alberta? Well turns out it can also bring refined product. In 1976, Imperial built a brand new state of the art refinery in Edmonton. The Strathcona refinery was huge, first 120,000 bbl/day, then 165,000 bbl/day and now 187,000 bbl/day capacity. In 1995, Imperial Oil decided to shut down the relatively inefficient Ioco Refinery and ship refined petroleum products by pipeline from Strathcona and some by rail to Vancouver from Alberta. The cost of the landed product is less this way. So Ioco Refinery was permanently shutdown and dismantled at the end of 1995. A sad day for the hundreds of skilled employees that worked there for sure.
Two other Vancouver refineries were shut down leaving only one in operation (Parkland Fuels Corp.) Fast forward to 2019. The population of British Columbia has grown immensely, particularly the Lower Mainland. There is now a shortage of refined product which is filled by imports from Washington State. There is an industry perceived need for a new refinery to be built in Vancouver but the political, social and environmental forces arrayed against this are huge. Meanwhile, massive traffic jams, slow commutes, unaffordable housing and high priced fuels are common here.
I am all for a greener future but we have to stop driving our fossil fueled cars, make better use of solar and electricity to heat our homes, take public transit more often, stop flying, cruising etc. Thanks for all those memories Ioco friends, you are not forgotten. In the moment, what do you think about the oil industry, pipelines and how we can ensure a greener future?