Click here to read an expanded, updated version of this piece in the latest issue of the paper. While in Washington, DC, negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States.
The elections in Mexico on 1 July returned a landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (a.k.a. AmLo). He took 53 per cent of the presidential vote, on a turnout of more than 60 per cent. His coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia (‘together we will make history’), now holds 312 of 500 seats in the chamber of deputies, and 70 of 128 seats in the senate. In both houses, the gender balance is close to 50-50. The coalition also did well in gubernatorial and local elections. The importance of the result for Mexican politics and society can hardly be overstated.
‘Here, the dead are more alive than ever,’ the ad on the radio said. ‘That’s why I love Mexico.’ I was on my way to Tlayacapan, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, a category invented to promote tourism. Tourism is down in this magic village. Located near the epicentre of the earthquake of 19 September, in Morelos state, south-west of the capital, it experienced the worst impact in living memory. There are husks of adobe homes on every street, most of the churches are damaged, and the town hall clock tower fell; the arches where the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed are still standing, pocked and scuffed as if after a gun battle. I saw a sign flapping taped to a gate: ‘Careful with the wall.’ A woman was organising a tequio, the old indigenous form of community labour, to make adobe bricks. Scrawled in purple all the way across a yellow house, its outbuildings now tidied into piles of rubble, was: ‘Thanks to everyone for your help.’ The state is nowhere to be seen, apparently.
The death toll from the earthquake that struck on 19 September has reached 338, with 199 in Mexico City, while more than 100 perished in the quake on 7 September in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Around 150,000 dwellings were damaged, including 57,000 that were totally destroyed. 250,000 people lost their homes. The federal government puts the amount needed to build or repair affected housing at 16 billion pesos, the equivalent of £660 million. It will cost more than 13 billion pesos to repair 12,932 damaged schools; 577 are a total loss. Around 1500 historic monuments have been damaged, mostly churches, convents and museums, and 8 billion pesos will be required for their repair. The government is appealing to the business community for funds. On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the site of the collapsed four-storey building at 168 Bolívar Street, on the corner of Chimalpopoca.
On Tuesday 19 September, the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8 earthquake that levelled large parts of Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit the city and neighbouring states. In 1985 the epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and the death toll reached at least 10,000. When that one set our house rocking back and forth at 7.17 a.m., my wife Betty and I were about to send our daughters to school. They boarded the bus and we turned on the television. For the next three days we witnessed the havoc at collapsed hospitals, hotels, and residential and office buildings. This time I was crossing Chapultepec Park, on my way to pick Betty up from the ABC Hospital. At 1.14 p.m., two hours after a planned earthquake drill and 12 days after a quake in Chiapas and Oaxaca killed at least 98 people, my taxi suddenly halted and began moving to and fro on the undulating road, while trees swayed towards and away from me. At the hospital, staff and patients were hugging the walls.
No one could accuse Diana Kennedy of cowardice. The 92-year-old Englishwoman lives in an adobe house in Michoacán, three hours west of Mexico City, where she writes about Mexican food culture. She has seen off extortion attempts by the local police. She isn’t bothered by nearby drug traffickers. She travels through the provinces of Mexico in an old jeep, in which she also sleeps. She takes a spade with her so she can dig the wheels out of the mud when necessary. ‘I never travel in straight lines,’ she says.
Three weeks ago a remarkable caravan of vehicles arrived at the Mexican town of Reynosa, just across the border from Hidalgo, Texas. It left the northern border of Nicaragua on 12 October, carrying the relatives of migrants who made the journey north to cross illegally into the United States, but vanished along the way. The caravan, which finished its journey through Central America this weekend, was trying to draw attention to their disappearance and – if possible – find them.
I landed in El Paso at 11.20 p.m. Manuel, the driver sent from the Collegio hosting the conference, spoke no English, and my Spanish is mostly limited to what I have learned from reading subway ads in New York (las cucarachas entran pero no puedan salir came unfortunately to mind). On the way to the border a rabbit ran in front of our car. Manuel braked; it swerved back to avoid another car; we felt the bump. He looked in his rear-view mirror and made a rueful hand gesture. In a novel this would be foreshadowing – and we'd have hit something bigger than a rabbit. A foreign journalist was decapitated a few weeks ago, but we’re inoffensive academics. The previous week I’d asked my seminar if they'd go to a conference in Ciudad Juárez. 'What’s the paper on?' they asked. 'Violence in literature,' I said. 'Well,' one of them said, 'what better place to give a paper on violence?' I found that I lacked the courage of my cowardice: I would have liked to pull out but couldn’t bring myself to.
Last week, for the second year running, Forbes magazine declared the Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim Helú the richest man in the world. In 2010, Slim – who holds a near-monopoly on mobile and landline services in Mexico, and whose family fortune includes department stores, hotels, mining, chemical, oil drilling, tobacco, tyre, construction and financial services companies as well as substantial chunks of both the centre of Mexico City and the New York Times – edged past Bill Gates by $500 million. This year Slim enjoyed a more comfortable lead: in just 12 months, his net worth has swollen by more than 30 per cent to an estimated $74 billion. Gates trails behind with a measly $54 billion.