The five best Mexican documentaries on Netflix

Mexico is something of a documentary filmmaker’s paradise.

The country’s incredible wealth and crushing poverty, its rich indigenous heritage and its lively contemporary arts scene provide ample space for inspiration. Here are some must-see documentaries on Mexican subjects, all available to watch now on Netflix.

1. “Cartel Land”

U.S. director Matthew Heineman’s gritty Oscar-nominated documentary “Cartel Land” tells the parallel stories of two vigilantes on both sides of the border—in Arizona and the crime-ravaged Mexican state of Michoacan.

The director spent months living in Michoacan and obtained unprecedented access to the Mexican vigilantes, or autodefensas. Owing to this dedication, the film features extraordinary and highly disturbing scenes of shootouts and torture rooms.

Heineman also formed a close relationship with the film’s central subject, the vigilante leader Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. Commanding, yet soft-spoken and sympathetic, the film traces the charismatic leader’s rise to power and influence, and his dramatic and sudden fall. An extraordinary and insightful documentary.

Cartel land

2. “Narco Cultura”

The film delves into the world of narcocorridos—drug ballads that combine upbeat rhythms with lyrics that celebrate the wealth and violence of Mexican drug cartels. Edgar Quintero is the lead singer of Buknas de Culiacan, a band that receives money from outlaws to glorify them in song. “We’ll chop off your head. We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” is the chorus to one number. 

Yet the scenes focusing on Los Angeles native Quintero are skillfully interwoven with the story of Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator in Ciudad Juarez whose colleagues are routinely murdered. As Soto says, his is a world where “you always go out with a prayer on your lips.” 

Director Shaul Schwarz cuts back and forth between his two subjects and in so doing exposes the connection between the music and the dark reality of the criminals it glorifies. “The youth have lost hope and now idealize the devil,” as Soto puts it.  

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3. “Eco de la montaña” (“Echo of the Mountain”)

This 2014 documentary film focuses on Wixárika (Huichol) artist Santos de la Torre. While his vast, multi-paneled mural “Huichol Thought and Art,” was deemed great enough to be displayed in the Paris metro, only a few meters from the Louvre Museum, the artist himself was not even invited to the inauguration. Instead, then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo opened the installation. “I wasn’t physically injured or crippled or anything like that,” the artist says. “But my soul was.” 

The film follows Santos as he makes a pilgrimage to Wirikuta, where he will ask the gods’ permission to create a new painting, this one an epic account of the history and spirituality of the Wixárika people made of tiny, multi-colored beads.

Echo of the mountain

4. “Hecho en Mexico” (Made in Mexico”) 

This exploration of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage is one of the most uplifting films ever made about the country. Breathtakingly shot, the film is more a feature length music video than a conventional documentary, and it provides a perfect introduction to the contemporary and folkloric Mexican music scene. Artists and groups such as Café Tacvba, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Carla Morrison appear, along with some insightful talking heads, such as the novelists Elena Poniatowska and Juan Villoro.

While the film does not shy away from Mexico’s acute problems, the overall tone is that of a fiesta, celebrating the country’s people, music and cultural wisdom.

Hecho en Mex

5. “Gimme the Power”

This 2012 film focuses on the Mexico City music group Molotov, but it is much more than a rockumentary. In fact, the band are not even mentioned until the 34th minute. Instead, the film provides an overview of Mexico’s political history and the historical role of rock music in its social protest movements.

Released to coincide with the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) return to power, the film reflects the deep sense of disconnection and injustice among swathes of the population. “You grow up listening to your grandparents killing themselves complaining about the PRI,” says bassist Micky Huidobro.

Yet there is also a celebratory and light-hearted tone to the film that is as uniquely Mexican as Molotov. The documentary makes clear that the band members are no ideological puritans. While they complain about corrupt politicians, they also sing homophobic and misogynist lyrics. “They live in a permanent contradiction,” says the director Olallo Rubio. “They’re into drinking beer and watching soccer, but the songs they write have an important message. It’s not that they’re anti-corporate… They once made a Pepsi commercial.”

Gimme-the-Power

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Six Mexican films not to miss on Netflix

Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema came to an abrupt end in the late 1950s. The money that had flowed into filmmaking went dry, cinemas went dark and audiences turned away. Yet for some years now, people have been talking about a new “Golden Age.”

Several Mexican independent filmmakers have achieved worldwide recognition. In the past decade, three Mexicans have taken home Best Director awards at Cannes. Mexicans have also been a dominating presence in Hollywood, winning both Best Director and Best Cinematographer Oscars for three years running.

While Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” have reached broad international audiences, their early works in Spanish are not as well-known. Yet for a crash course in Mexican cinema you need not leave the house. Here are six excellent Mexican films currently showing on Netflix.

1. “Amores perros” (2000)

When people talk about a new “Golden Age” in Mexican cinema, they usually date its beginning to this. Starring Gael García Bernal and Emilio Echevarría, the film’s focal point is a car crash in Mexico City. This central event brings together three separate stories concerning local characters with complicated love lives and an attachment to their dogs. The film was released just as the country turned from its more than 70-year history of one-party-rule and it captures the often brutally competitive reality of modern, urban Mexican living. “Amores Perros” almost singlehandedly kick-started the film industry in Mexico, as well as launched Iñárritu and Bernal’s extraordinary careers.

Amoresperros

2. “Sin Nombre” (2009)

Before Cary Fukunaga achieved worldwide acclaim for “Beasts of No Nation” and the classy crime series “True Detective” he directed “Sin Nombre,” a poignant yet fast-paced thriller about the lives of migrants heading to the United States. The film tells the story of a young Honduran girl and a runaway Mexican gang member who meet aboard the notorious “Bestia” train which rattles through Mexico on its way to the border. Fukunaga, a restrained and intelligent director, avoids the temptation of it becoming a conventional romance. Instead, we watch the attachment that develops between conflicted characters caught in a socio-political tragedy beyond their control. The double Sundance award-winning film ranks among the best Spanish language films of the decade.

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3. “El Infierno” (2010)

Luis Estrada must be the best known director in Mexico who has not yet become a household name abroad. His 2010 film, “El Infierno” (Hell”) is the third in a trilogy that includes “La ley de Herodes” (“Herod’s Law”) from 1999 and a 2006 feature, “Un mundo maravilloso” (“A Wonderful World”), both also available on Netflix in Mexico. After receiving mixed reviews for the second instalment in the trilogy, Estrada returned in fine form with “El Infierno,” a biting satirical comedy about a deported migrant’s transformation into a cartel foot soldier. The film takes aim at drug traffickers but also humanizes them. “The important thing for me was to show some of the complexity of the phenomenon,” Estrada said, “This is not a problem about good guys versus bad guys like the government says.”

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4. “La Dictadura Perfecta” (2013)

Estrada followed the critical and commercial success of “El Infierno” with “La Dictadura Perfecta” (“The Perfect Dictatorship”) a film that takes its name from Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s famous description of Mexico under the continuous governments of the PRI. The satire attacks the cozy relationship between Mexico’s television networks and its politicians. Several real-life gaffes from recent Mexican history are featured in the story and in some ways the film is hindered by its own accuracy, which detracts from the humor. Yet this is still a solid story about political corruption that was a massive hit in Mexico. “The box-office results are all the more impressive because the film was never mentioned on TV,” Estrada said. “Not even on network news and entertainment programs, not once.”

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5. “Colosio: El Asesinato” (2012)

It’s 1994. Mexico’s front-running presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio is shot dead at a campaign rally. The killer confesses to the crime, but few people believe the official version, especially after at least 15 people linked to the case are murdered in suspicious circumstances. In this conspiracy thriller, fictional investigator Andrés Vázquez is hired to lead a secret investigation into the crime. He finds evidence that points away from the lone gunman explanation and towards the PRI Party’s own shadowy elite. A solid thriller timed to embarrass the PRI in the run-up to its return to power in 2012.

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6. “Una ultima y nos vamos” (2015)   

A small-town mariachi band leaves the state of Jalisco in pursuit of fame and recognition in Mexico City. They enter a national music competition that could be the opportunity of a lifetime. The winning group will perform at the Basilica of Guadalupe. Yet during the trip, intimate secrets bubble to the surface, testing their bonds of friendship and threatening the future of the band. “Una ultima y nos vamos” (“One for the Road”) is a light-hearted, at times sentimental film about friendship and perseverance.

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Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez: The man behind the marketing

IMG_4832Hidden behind a lime tree on a featureless street in Guadalajara is a shabby little gym that has become the stuff of legend in Mexican boxing.

The Julián Magdaleno has produced five world champions, including Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, the middleweight champion whose May 7 defense against British boxer Amir Khan could make him the biggest draw in world boxing.

Inside, the walls are covered with peeling posters, photos and newspaper clippings. A teenager dances in front of a mural of Canelo, unleashing a string of blows against a duct tape-covered heavy bag.

At the back of the gym is a creaky, unsteady-looking ring. Sparring partners duke it out under the framed shorts of local heroes, including those Canelo wore in 2011 as he battered his way to the belt. Below the shorts is a hand-painted sign with the gym’s motto, “The worst that can happen is you stop caring if you lose.”

At 25, Canelo is already a world away from this venue. In 2015, he banked more than $10 million for two fights, around 1,700 times the average yearly salary in Mexico. He has already featured in the third most successful pay-per-view fight in history, a decision loss to a very dominant Floyd Mayweather. Yet with Mayweather officially retired, the opportunity exists for a new pay-per-view-king.

Canelo certainly fits the bill: handsome and clean cut in the mold of Oscar de La Hoya, the original “Golden Boy” who now acts as his mentor.

But behind the squeaky-clean brand is a very different story. While Canelo’s handlers have looked to sweep his problems under the carpet, his early career in Mexico was mired in controversy.

From street fights, legal squabbles and even a brother accused of murder, the red-haired Mexican is no stranger to scandal.

There is also widespread skepticism that his talents match his status. While the fighter is supposed to fill the vacuum left by retired Mexican greats like Juan Manuel Márquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Julio César Chávez, many Mexican fans believe he was conferred status before he earned it.

“He was made famous before he won the championship,” says ESPN boxing expert Salvador Rodriguez. “For the boxing romantics in Mexico, you need to be champion first. Then you become a public figure.”

In the early years of Canelo’s career, the hype machine was driven by Mexico’s main channel Televisa. From 2009, the station ran a marketing campaign that made the boxer a regular fixture at commercial breaks and put his face on every magazine rack in the country.

As such, the details of Canelo’s early life are familiar to Mexican audiences.

The youngest of seven brothers, who all became professional boxers, Alvarez is nicknamed “Canelo” (cinnamon) because of his red hair. In fact, his distinctive appearance is a key part of the narrative, as the young Alvarez learned to defend himself against teasing classmates.

“He was always bullied for being red-haired, for being a lighter complexion, for having freckles,” says his brother Gonzalo. “He used to lose control and get into fights.”

As a child Canelo worked with his father selling ice pops in the tiny town of Juanacatlan, western Mexico.

“It was a tough upbringing. We were always working,” says Gonzalo. “He didn’t enjoy secondary school. He preferred fighting.”

His eldest brother Rigoberto, who himself became world champion, is credited with giving Canelo a pair of boxing gloves to channel his aggression.

IMG_4909“I helped him and another kid, who was a bit bigger, get the gloves on. In that moment, I had no idea what I was about to see,” Rigoberto recalls. “He was 11 years old and a kid of that age shouldn’t be able to punch like that. ‘God this is a great gift you’ve given us,’ I remember saying.”

Before long, Rigoberto took his brother to train in the Magdaleno gym, where he sparred with lightweight world champion Javier Jáuregui.

With 70 kids dropping by daily, the gym is still trading on its reputation for forging greatness.

“Saul’s an example for everyone, we can all learn from him,” says trainer Jose Barrera. “Lots of troubled children come to the gym… I had my vices too. I used to drink and take cocaine until I found this place.”

Canelo’s role model image was reinforced in 2013, when he paid a high-profile visit to Mexico’s hurricane-hit pacific coast. The boxing star was on hand for photos and moral support, and he spent a day unloading sandbags and shoveling mud.

But his brother Gonzalo admits that Canelo is not popular with everyone, including many in his hometown. “For the town he should be a hero and a source of pride,” he says. “But sometimes instead of support you, people want to knock you down. There’s a lot of jealousy.”

Local attitudes towards the Álvarez family may have soured since Canelo’s brother Victor was accused of murder four years ago. According to numerous witnesses, Victor shot a 19-year-old man dead after an argument at a private party turned ugly.

Authorities confirmed that he was a murder suspect and he was arrested in 2012. Yet the charges mysteriously disappeared and his brother was seen at ringside when Canelo fought in Las Vegas last November.

“He was always a bad kid,” one local says of Victor. “Recently, the family hasn’t been around much.”

Canelo has himself faced legal troubles. Bantamweight world champion Ulises “Archie” IMG_4822Solis accused the heavier boxer of attacking him in 2011. Solis was inactive for more than a year, and a protracted legal battle led to an out-of-court settlement in 2015.

As a result of the agreement, Solis is unable to discuss the incident. Yet he is happy to refer to a “crisis of credibility” in Mexican boxing. “Boxing is business, but it shouldn’t be brazen,” Solis says.

The fact is many Mexicans are unconvinced by their preordained hero. Canelo was awarded comfortable margins in close fights against opponents Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara and Miguel Cotto. One judge famously even gave him a draw against Mayweather.

While Canelo’s next opponent Amir Khan is a fast and experienced boxer, he is moving up two weight divisions to face the naturally bigger man. As such, even a convincing win for Canelo will do little for his credibility. The widespread perception in Mexico and beyond is that it will take a showdown with the unbeaten Kazakh star Gennady Golovkin to truly prove his salt.

“He hasn’t really faced a guy that demands the best of him,” says one Juanacatlan local. “Put him in front of someone that really pushes him.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Surreal Mexico: five extraordinary historical characters

The artistic juxtaposition of the absurd and the real is a familiar sight in Mexico—the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez described it is a country where surrealism “runs through the streets.”

Fittingly, the nation has produced its fair share of eccentrics. It has also always attracted a wide roster of offbeat foreign artists and intellectuals, from U.S. writer William Burroughs to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

While the surrealist movement originated in Europe, many of its greatest proponents lived in Mexico. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington made the country their home, while others like Andre Breton and Salvador Dali paid visits. “There is no way I’m going back to Mexico,” Dali even complained. “I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings.”

Surreal, larger-than-life personalities loom large in Mexican history books. Here are five extraordinary characters who could be Garcia Marquez inventions.

1. The Spanish slave turned Mayan warrior

Gonzalo-Guerrero-turned-MayaShipwrecked in the Caribbean in 1511, Gonzalo Guerrero and a group of exhausted, dehydrated passengers washed up on the shores of the Mexican island of Cozumel. A welcoming party of Mayan warriors was anything but friendly. The survivors were kidnapped, caged and scheduled for sacrifice. Four of the prisoners had their hearts cut out and offered to the gods, but Guerrero and a Franciscan friar escaped just in time. They were captured by another tribe and put to work as slaves. Yet Guerrero reportedly killed an alligator when it attacked his master and the feat of bravery won him freedom from slavery. He married a Mayan princess, tattooed his face and had the first mestizo (mixed) children.

When Hernan Cortes’ expedition showed up in Mexico in 1519, he heard rumours of the Spaniards and wanted them as interpreters. The friar was ecstatic and went to tell Guerrero.

“I am married and have three children,” Guerrero answered. “The indigenous people look on me as a Cacique (lord) and a captain in times of war.” Meanwhile, his wife was furious. “What is this slave coming here to talk to my husband?” she told the Spanish friar. “Get out of here, and don’t trouble us with any more words.”

Guerrero lived as a Mayan leader and even led campaigns against Cortes. He was killed by a Spanish arquebus in 1536.

2. The Mexican general who gave his leg a full state burial

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is best remembered in Mexico as the man who saved his own life by signing over all Mexican rights to Texas. It was the beginning of a process that would eventually see Mexico lose more than half of its territories to theSanta_Anna United States.

Yet the General was also behind one the most eccentric burials in history. After being hit by French cannon fire in 1838, the famously flamboyant military leader had his left leg amputated. When he became Mexican president four years later, he arranged for the limb to be given an elaborate state funeral that included cannon salutes, prayers and poetry. Unfortunately for the president, public opinion soon turned. In 1844, an angry mob dug up the limb and paraded it through the streets of Mexico City.

3. The revolutionary saint

The Sonora desert inspires such a sense of mystery that one historian has remarked it breeds “messiahs like mushrooms after a storm.”e5-573

Teresa Urrea was born in the region, the daughter of an unwed 14-year-old mother and a father who ignored her. By the time she was 19 she had transformed into the famous “Santa Teresa,” a mystic whose comments on social justice inspired such revolutionary fervor the government exiled her to the United States.

Urrea became famous in her mid-teens, when she fell into a coma and was “resurrected” at her wake. Word soon spread that she had healing powers. A following of 1,200 people camped outside her desert town. Sick pilgrims came for healing.

In 1891, the village of Tomochic sought her guidance after a drought. When unrest broke out against the government, Urrea was held responsible. While villagers invoked her name, she distanced herself from the violence, although she always expressed empathy for the plight of the poor. While no evidence has been uncovered implicating her in the rebellion, she was deported in 1892. Eventually she settled in El Paso, Texas, where she continued as a healer.

In 2005, nearly one hundred years after her death, a distant relative Luis Alberto Urrea published “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” a novel about the folk saint.

4. Edward James, the eccentric surrealist

imagesLike many other artists, Englishman Edward James was seduced by the archaeological discoveries unearthed in Mexico in the early twentieth century. His most famous artwork “Las Pozas” (the Pools), reflects this obsession. In a tribute to the ancient cities that were unearthed in Mexico’s jungles, the massive artwork features a series of concrete towers and stairways that twist through the jungle canopy.

James was himself a living work of surrealism. A millionaire arts patron who grew up among aristocrats and was rumored to be the son or grandson of King Edward VII, he moved to Mexico to devote two decades of his life to the work. He reportedly enjoyed naked strolls through the park and often slept outside among the weeds. He even asked his personal chefs to cook banquets for the exotic animals that populated the park.

5. The twice-martyred “Maddest One”

“Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life,” reads the verse, printed in the style of a Catholic prayer book.  But Saint Nazario is no Vatican-sanctioned martyr.190115060c5ca20med

This is because Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was a drug trafficker from the troubled state of Michoacan who built a quasi-religious movement with himself at the center. He  wrote both a memoir and a little book of musings in which he espoused a bizarre and contradictory narco-Christian ethic.

When the government announced his demise in December 2010, his own messianic mythmaking and the failure to find a body converged to send the rumor mill spinning. After another gunfight three years later and the recovery of a corpse, forensic experts confirmed the suspicions. The officially slain drug messiah had kept up his criminal enterprise until his real death in 2014.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Pablo Escobar’s son brings message of peace to Mexico

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“At one point there was a four-million-dollar price on my head,” said Sebastián Marroquín, the son of infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

“But I don’t want anyone in the audience to get too excited, there’s no one left to pay you,” he added, prompting laughter throughout the packed auditorium.

Having survived numerous attempts on his life throughout his teenage years, Marroquín was in Guadalajara’s Teatro Diana to share his thoughts on how Mexico can learn from his father’s story.

He was born Juan Pablo Escobar, the heir to the largest drug trafficking empire in history. He assumed a new identity in 1994, when at age 17, he grew tired of running and decided to face the very men who had put a price on his head.

At the meeting with Colombia’s top gangsters, his uncles and grandmother sat with his enemies, loudly clamoring for the property and possessions he had inherited from his father.

Yet the Colombian drug barons showed a rare moment of mercy. He was given a choice: eternal exile or violent death.

The bounty was withdrawn when he left for Argentina. Eventually he became an architect, a writer, a husband and a father.

Addressing the audience at the Teatro Diana, he projected pictures of the four kingpins who had called him to the meeting. Of the four, two are dead, while two are imprisoned for life in the United States.

Marroquín’s mission in life is to encourage young Latin Americans to make the same choice he did.

“I came to consider drug trafficking a curse … all I can remember it bringing is persecution and death,” he said.

Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval was keen to capitalize on Marroquín’s visit and he arranged a live broadcast of their morning meeting on the social media platform Periscope. The pair discussed the security situation in the state and the impact of negative role models on violence.

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Sebastián Marroquín meets Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval

At the Teatro Diana, Marroquín explicitly referred to the popular Netflix series “Narcos,” which he believes glamorises his father’s rise to power.

“I met a very different a Pablo Escobar to the one in this series,” Marroquín said. “I saw an intense suffering that is not reflected at all. Most of these televisions programs send young people the message that drug trafficking is cool.”

Marroquín conceded that his father possessed countless properties, cars, planes and helicopters. Yet he was so restricted by his outlaw status that he and his family could never enjoy the wealth.

“We had lots of houses but we couldn’t live in any of them. We couldn’t drive any of our vehicles. They were kept in warehouses,” he said. “The drug trade promises many things but it takes them all away, along with freedom and the lives of loved ones.”

Marroquín illustrated his point by showing a photo of a gold encrusted dinner set valued at more than $400,000. Georg Jensen, the Danish house who produced the 24-piece-set told Escobar that they had not received an order of that size since the fall of Europe’s great dynastic families. Yet the Escobars only used the dinnerware on one or two occasions, and thieves made off with the complete set in 1993.

Marroquín credits education for opening the doors that led him away from his father’s violent world.

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Pablo Escobar with his son at the luxurious Hacienda Nápoles estate

“Education has allowed me to generate my own opportunities and avoid temptations … I was forced to learn that a criminal life does not last long.”

According to Marroquín, his father applied to university twice. He wanted to train as a journalist and then a lawyer, but was rejected on both occasions.

“I ask myself how different would the story of Colombia would have been if the country had been prepared to provide an education for my father? What would our history be if this man had been given the right to educate himself and if that right really was a right and not a privilege?” Marroquín asked.

Certainly, Escobar displayed an extraordinary intelligence and adaptability that would have transferred into other fields. In one anecdote, Marroquín explained how his father invented an ingenious new trafficking method. Smugglers soaked denim jeans in liquid cocaine and exported them to the United States. The buyers would carefully wash the jeans, extract and dry the drug. The method worked for many years, until a tip off alerted authorities. Escobar heard news customs had seized a shipment and he realized this was the end of the jeans method, yet he kept sending boxes.

Escobar laughed when his men asked him why the route was still active. He explained that inspectors had spent hours washing through the jeans, without finding a trace of cocaine. Tired, they finally gave up and threw them back into the boxes before sending them on their way. But Escobar had the last laugh – he had simply switched to soaking the boxes in cocaine instead.

Marroquín recounted this story with a son’s unmistakable pride. Indeed, throughout his talk he was keen to draw attention to his father’s generosity and refute suggestions his philanthropy was a cynical public relations ploy. “I think it is important to remember not just the negative part of my father’s story but the complete story,” he said.

In 1983, a garbage dump fire exposed the grinding poverty of 5,000 families who eked an existence from the discarded scraps of nearby Medellin. “The state indifference allowed my father to fill the vacuum,” Marroquín said, as he showed photos of the complex

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Escobar made Forbes Magazine’s billionaire list seven years in a row

Escobar built to house the displaced families. The Pablo Escobar Neighborhood remains to this day.

During this time, Escobar was a congressman in Colombia’s legislature. Yet his rivalry with the state escalated in 1984, when his murky background came to light, forcing him to resign his post after just two years in office.

He had entered politics to prevent the signing of an extradition treaty with the United States. Yet the drug baron was left exposed and without diplomatic immunity.

By 1987, Escobar had launched an all-out-war against the state. His terror campaign claimed the lives of thousands, including three presidential candidates, scores of police, judges and journalists.

The war ended in 1993, when Escobar was killed in a firefight with security forces. On live radio, the distraught 17-year-old Marroquín vowed to kill everybody responsible.

“I reacted very violently,” he reflected in the Teatro Diana. “Today, in Colombia, I am remembered more for these ten seconds of threats than for 23 years of peace … but it doesn’t matter, I know I am walking the right path.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Surreal living arrangements – Mexico’s strangest homes

The concept of the home is at the heart of Mexican culture, “Mi casa es tu casa” says the age-old refrain. Homes are family centers, meeting points for friends and the building blocks of communities. Few visitors to Mexico fail to notice that locals offer some of the warmest hospitality on the planet.

The concept of Mexico and the New World was also built on the idea of the freedom to create.

Free from the stifling restrictions of Europe, the Western Hemisphere offered a fresh start, where everyone had a chance to get creative. Without a doubt, these ideas persist today. Just take a look at the five eccentric homes below.

1. The plastic paradise

Joyxee Island is a floating artificial island near Cancun that is constructed mostly out of plastic bottles. British artist Richart “Reishee” Sowa is the island’s creator. The three-storey house he built has three showers, a kitchen, two bedrooms, solar panels and even internet access. The floating base for the house is constructed out of around 150,000 bottles.

Spiral Island

“The collecting of the bottles started slowly at first – it took about six months just to source the base, just walking around the local towns and picking up the bottles by hand,” explains Sowa.

In total, construction of the island took Sowa more than two years. It is his third attempt at building his own plastic utopia, but he has learned from past mistakes. The current island is situated in a lagoon, so it is less susceptible to the hurricanes that destroyed its predecessors.

2. The identical house in San Luis 

The death of her husband Freddie in 2001 left Hollywood socialite Janet Thomas De Cordova in emotional and financial ruin.

Freddie, formerly the executive producer of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, had blown through most of their savings. Janet’s million dollar mansion, 1875 Carla Ridge, would be put up for sale.

imageIn deep emotional distress and with funds running low, Janet grew even closer to her Mexican housekeeper and confidante Gracie Covarrubias.

Yet one morning even this was taken from her. After 40 years with Janet, Gracie announced that she was retiring to San Luis Potosi, her hometown in Mexico, where she had built her own house with her savings.

“Gracie, you are all I have,” Janet reportedly said. So Gracie invited her to join her.

“A minute later she put her hand to her head, closed her eyes, and said yes,” Gracie later recounted, “And I said, ‘Think real good, because you don’t have a doctor there or your friends.’ And she said, ‘But I have you.’”

In 2006, Janet and Gracie began the three-day drive to San Luis Potosi. When Janet arrived at her new home, she couldn’t believe her eyes. With its grand staircase, U-shaped sofas, marble countertops and swimming pool, Janet realized her beloved friend had overseen the construction of her own 1875 Carla Ridge. “Gracie’s house was a replica of Janet and Freddie’s,” a friend reported.

3. The naked woman

With her right hand raised in the air like a naked Statue of Liberty, the 55-foot woman shaped sculpture towers above a dusty neighborhood in Tijuana. Artist Armando Muñoz Garcia calls the sculpture home, and that is no metaphor. He has lived in “La Mona” since completing the structure in 1991. The layout of the five storey structure makes allusion to human biology – the breasts are the “heart” of the house, and each contains a bed, the office is the head, the stomach is in the kitchen and the toilet in the storey below.

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Muñoz Garcia built the massive female form as a statue to mark Tijuana’s 1989 centennial. City officials roundly rejected the proposal but Muñoz struggled on undeterred and finally completed the project two years later than planned.

During her lifetime, “La Mona” has worn a range of clothes, as well as spent much of the time naked. In 2014, she donned a pink dress to raise awareness about cancer. Last year, 10 different artists painted a multicolour mural on the 18-ton statue to celebrate her 25th birthday.

4. The House of the Dogs 

One of Guadalajara’s most iconic mansions, the House of the Dogs, earned its nickname because of the two stone canines that stand permanent guard on its roof. The statues were imported from New York by Ana Flores, the young wife of Don Jesus Flores, a wealthy merchant who oversaw La Constancia tequila distillery.

When her husband died, Ana was left in control of the business. According to one version, she then married her long-time lover Jose, who was the tequila plant manager.  The ghost of Don Flores appeared in the House of the Dogs, haunting Ana in revenge for her infidelity.guadalajara-480682-1

But another version says Ana was a shrewd businesswoman in a rigidly sexist world, who realized she would need a man as the face of the operation. Hers was a practical, and loveless marriage.

Regardless which version we believe, we do know one thing for sure. Jose inherited the tequila company along with the House of the Dogs. In fact, he celebrated his luck by rebranding the product and naming it after himself. La Constancia was removed from the labels, replaced by the new name: Jose Cuervo.

5. The Island of the Dolls  

This secluded island on Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City must surely rank as one of the creepiest place in earth, if not actually collect the prize.

Dozens of plastic dolls hang from the island’s trees. They stare vacantly into the distance. Some are tinged green, some have no body and one has its eyes painted blood red.

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The nightmarish island was reportedly the home of a troubled hermit called Don Julian Santana Barrera.

According to local lore, Julian found a little girl drowned in mysterious circumstances and was unable to save her life. Later he found a doll in the waters and assuming it to be hers, he hung it from a tree.

Haunted by the image of the girl’s floating body, Julian descended into madness and embarked on a frenzied vocation to collect discarded dolls from the lake and display them in the trees.

After his death in 2001, the island became a tourist attraction. Some witnesses claim they have heard the dolls talk or seen them move their arms or open their eyes.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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The women at the frontline of Mexico’s battle for press freedom

A quick glance through the magazine stands or a minute watching the most popular channel, Televisa, should be enough to convince anyone that sexism still abounds in Mexican media.

Women are almost exclusively dressed in tight clothes and heels. They smile and pout from the glossy pages of magazines. On television, they invariably play a supportive role, cheerfully laughing at the jokes of male co-hosts. Even news coverage rarely features female “experts.” Women mostly appear in the “voice on the street” role, where “normal” people give their reactions to events beyond their control.

Yet this limited and discriminatory presentation has actually helped pushed a generation of women reporters to the forefront of Mexico’s independent journalism movement. Carmen Aristegui, Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martinez have become household names in a country that has staged a very public conflict over government control of the press.

Aristegui, Mexico’s most famous radio broadcaster, took on the highest office of the land when she reported that President Enrique Peña Nieto lived in a house provided by a major government contractor. Lydia Cacho published “The Demons of Eden,” a book alleging a prominent business leader had connections to a paedophile ring. Sanjuana Martinez reported critically on a judge after she ordered a raid on a domestic violence charity that removed two children from the care of their mother and returned them to their abusive father.

Yet the women journalists fronting the campaign for press independence have paid a heavy price for speaking out.

Aristegui was fired by her radio station shortly after she revealed the potential “conflict of interest” between the president’s personal and political life.

For other women journalists, standing up to the powerful has come at an even greater cost.

In 1999, Lydia Cacho was raped and had several bones broken by a man in a bus station bathroom. She has always believed the attack was carried out as a retaliation for her reporting. In 2005, she was approached by several police officers in Cancun. Cacho was forced into a van and taken on a terrifying 20-hour drive to a Puebla jail. During the trip, she was sexually violated by police and threatened with a gun, before finally being released on bail. A tape later emerged of a conversation between a businessman and the governor of Puebla, in which they agreed to have Cacho attacked and raped for her investigations.

In 2012, Sanjuana Martinez was in the process of divorcing her violent husband. Under the pretext that she owed the state a small fine, armed police descended on her home in Nuevo León.

“Eight patrols arrived at my house. The scaled the walls, they smashed open the locks and broke the door, wearing masks and waving big guns in front of my children,” Martinez tells the Mexican Labyrinth. “It was a raid carried out without any search warrant… I  was violently arrested for an administrative error.”

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Sanjauna Martinez

The deployment of armed police is almost unheard of in civil cases, and the judge who ordered the raid was already familiar with Martinez, having been the subject of her critical reporting in 2008. Martinez was held for 24 hours before she was finally released.

While not all violence against female journalists is perpetrated by the state, authorities have systematically ignored the escalating problem.

The Communication and Information on Women Organization (Cimac) documented 184 cases of violence against women journalists between 2002 and 2013, representing a more than 2,200 percent increase, while attacks against male journalists increased by 276 percent.

Of these incidents, 11 were cases of femicide, a statistic that reminds us that Mexico is still one the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

In February, crime reporter Anabel Flores Salazar was tortured and murdered in Veracruz, a state that is considered one of the riskiest places in the world to be a journalist.

Yet the strategy of sustained repression and violence has in many ways backfired. The conflict with Aristegui was a major turning point in Peña Nieto’s administration. It sparked widespread public indignation and suggested the president’s personal involvement in the repressive tactics his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had used to dominate Mexico for more than 70 years. While Aristegui was given a hero’s welcome at Guadalajara’s International Book Fair, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings took a downturn. After the scandal, just 27 percent of Mexicans trusted the president to tackle corruption, down 15 points from the year before.

Similarly, the police repression of Cacho and Martinez drew international attention to the freedom of expression and impunity crisis in Mexico. Their own high-profile battles with the powerful helped expose the shortcomings of the Mexican government.

Martinez adamantly maintains a clear separation between journalism and activism. “For me journalism is the most important thing… it is very important that I carry on reporting, writing and investigating.”

Yet she also says that the violence directed against journalists has had a unifying effect on the community, transforming them into powerful campaigners in their own right.

“In the case of the killing of reporters, I think it has converted all of us into defenders of each other. Our colleagues have been executed, disappeared, and cruelly murdered… Ninety percent of the cases have not been resolved and this impunity obliges us to raise our voices and denounce the murders.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Exotic pets in Mexico: The ethics and dangers of a growing trend

Picture1In recent years, Petco and +Kota have successfully cornered the lucrative Mexican pet market. The former is a US chain offering bright and airy superstores on edge-of-town retail parks, while the latter follows a convenience store model, offering a vast proliferation of branches in locations across the country, with 20 in metropolitan Guadalajara alone.

The specialist store Exotic Planet in downtown Guadalajara sets itself apart from the mainstream before customers have even stepped across the threshold. A huge orange-and-black tarantula is painted on the building’s facade, while a ten-foot long python springs out from behind a second storey window, its teeth bared for attack. At the entrance, a black-beaked owl keeps tireless guard, wide eyed, impaTarantulassive and inscrutable.

Inside, customers are greeted by the sort of wild menagerie you would normally find at a zoo. A Burmese Python is coiled around a branch and will set you back 6,000 pesos ($330). A red-kneed tarantula costs 1,500 pesos ($80), while a black crow is on offer for 25,000 ($1,400).

Customers who find these pets too pedestrian can arrange for special deliveries.

“We have brought in everything from lemurs to lions,” a store assistant says. “They cost 75,000 pesos ($4,150) each.” The animals are mostly imported from the United States, where they are bred in special facilities.

Stores like these are catering to a growing demand, as exotic pets become the latest status symbol for well-heeled Mexican youth. Social media is awash with pictures of rich youngsters posing alongside lions, cheetahs and even endangered species like jaguars.

LionLate last year, photographs appeared on Instagram and Twitter of a man taking his tiger cub for a stroll in the upmarket Andares mall.

Such animals can be bought entirely legally, the owner of Exotic Planet is keen to emphasize.

“You can sell anything in Mexico,” he says. “Many people think that buying an animal is illegal, but if they have been brought up in captivity, if the rules have been followed, there is no problem.”

Yet the popularity of exotic animals is showing no signs of abating and has even spurred a domestic industry of breeding centers.

“People have asked us to get hold of every sort of animal, even dolphins,” says the store owner. “In fact, the largest breeding center for dolphins in the world is in Cancun … The cost is not in buying the animal, it is in keeping it. You need to demonstrate you have the correct environment. You can’t just keep it in your swimming pool.”

Breeding centers for iguanas, deer and tarantulas have sprung up in Jalisco, while there are accredited lion breeders in the State of Mexico. “It’s like oil,” the owner says, “it is all exported to the United States.”

In order to purchase exotic pets, customers at the store have to obtain special authorisation from the Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). Permits need to be obtained, stipulating that the animal will be well-treated.

Nevertheless, once the purchase has been made, there is little guarantee that the owners will have the time or money to invest in its proper care.

Security is also a risk and escaped animals pose a real threat to neighbours.

Last September, a Bengal tiger cub was captured and returned to its owner in Zapopan, Jalisco, after escaping from a gated community. The year before, firefighters were called in to seize an escaped jaguar which was leaping from roof to roof in the Guadalajara suburb of Tonala.

Maria Jose Lozano is a representative of the civil association Animal Justice and Dignity. She warns that big cat species pose a threat to their owners. “Even when an animal is very familiar with the person who cleans or gives it food, it might attack … This is especially likely when animals are suffering from high levels of stress because they lack the space to move freely.”

Lozano believes that existing international legislation is partly responsible for the trade in exotic animals, as specimens bred in captivity are not afforded the same protection as wild animals.

“Unfortunately, the sale of exotic animals is legally permitted because Mexico is signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which permits the sale of exotic animals as a way of avoiding the contraband of native species between different countries.”

A nationwide law prohibiting the use of wild circus animals came into effect last year, freeing more than 2,000 animals from performing. Yet it has been widely reported that as an unintended consequence of the ban, the market was flooded with lions, elephants and other exotic animals that zoos had been unable to accommodate.

Lozano supported the ban and denies the legislative change has worsened the situation of the animals.

“Circuses only charge 20 pesos ($1.10), the place only fits 300 people, there are no events during the week and they employ 80 people … where does the money come from? The circuses always had an internal black market of animals because they always trafficked among themselves.”

According to Lozano, a significant portion of circus profits were made renting and selling animals illegally. The new law has only brought the problem out into the open.

“The trafficking of animals and the black market has not risen as the result of the new law. It’s the same. It has always been there. The circus was only a front for the black market.”

Lozano hopes for an end to the exotic animal trade, whether legal or illegal. She believes the government should take a more active role in discouraging people from buying these animals.

“Wild animals are not pets. Wild animals are not domestic animals. Wild animals are not objects. They do not enjoy human contact nor lose their natural wild instincts. Keeping wild animals is cruel, it is unethical and it endangers the environment.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Gritty vigilante documentary up for Oscar Sunday

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu aims to repeat last year’s success and become the first director to collect consecutive Oscars since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1950. Yet Iñárritu’s revenge tale “The Revenant,” has nothing to do with Mexico, unlike another nominated film.

U.S. director Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” – up for Best Documentary – provides an engrossing glimpse into Mexico’s violent drug cartels.

It tells the parallel stories of two vigilantes on both sides of the border – in Arizona and the crime-ravaged Mexican state of Michoacan.

The extraordinary access Heineman obtained to the Mexican vigilantes, or autodefensas, is apparent from the opening, where we bear witness to what looks like a pagan ritual in a forest. Yet the masked man shrouded in circling wisps of smoke is not a medicine man but a meth cook, and he explains his motives in a hushed, confessional tone.

Much has been made in the media of this unprecedented access. Later, there are even extremely disturbing scenes of shootouts and torture rooms.

But the film does not rely solely on its insight into the politics of vigilantism. The director also gains extraordinary personal access to the movement’s leader, Dr José Manuel Mireles.

Heineman was introduced to the film’s central subject by a journalist who said he was the “most interesting man” she knew.

Mireles

The film certainly bears this out. Mireles is a captivating presence: commanding, yet soft-spoken and sympathetic. But this is no whitewashed portrayal. We also see his shortcomings and transgressions, which range from cheating on his wife, to ordering an execution.

The documentary traces this charismatic leader’s rise and crashing fall. By the end, he is an isolated figure, in conflict with old friends and in fear of reprisals.

Sadly, the film has a glaring flaw. The Arizona scenes are neither revealing nor captivating. The “heavily armed drug smugglers and human traffickers” that we are warned about at the beginning never make an appearance. Instead, a self-appointed border agent apprehends a group of unarmed migrants hiding in a bush.

The story in Michoacan drowns out Arizona, creating an imbalance that detracts from the film.

Yet as events south of the border go into tailspin, Heineman can be forgiven for focusing on Mexico.

By the end of the film, we have come full circle. We are back in the forest, among the smoke and the meth. The gangs have been chased out, but what has replaced them? “Someway, somehow, everybody has gotten corrupted,” the masked man reveals. “The autodefensas and the people cooking meth, we’re pretty much the same team.”

“Cartel Land” is available on Netflix in Mexico and the United States.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Papal tickets for sale

Ticket

The limited distribution of free tickets to see Pope Francis in Mexico spurred a temporary black market as scalpers cashed in on his trip by flogging tickets online. A single ticket to a papal Mass sold for 3,000 pesos ($150), nearly 40 times the daily minimum wage, while an advertisement offered an apartment with a balcony for the papal parade for 22,000 pesos ($,1,150), more than the priciest ticket for Mexico’s Formula One.

The church and government were unsurprisingly critical of those who had capitalized on the papal visit.

Monsignor Luis Martínez Flores is a priest and the director of communications for the diocese of Ecatepec, one of five locations the pope visited in Mexico. He said that various people had contacted him on social networks to report the problem of ticket scalping, despite the fact that all tickets were clearly labeled as free. “We have used various methods of communication to let people know that they are not for sale and that they are only given out by the diocese,” Martinez Flores said.

One ticket scalper, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Mexican Labyrinth that he had sold two tickets for 3,000 pesos each. He defended his action by comparing his own profiteering to that of the authorities. According to him, the zone of Ecatepec where the papal Mass was held had been completely revamped by a government hoping to show a false image of Mexico.

“If you’d have visited 20 days earlier you’d have seen the real Ecatepec but now it looks completely different,” he said. “In reality, it is among the zones with the highest levels of crime and violence in Mexico…They tidied it and repainted it all. There was a lot of interest from the government in cleaning up any part the pope might see.”

Martinez Flores pointed out that the “pope had specifically chosen to visit those places in Mexico that suffer most.”

He also defended the government’s decision to repaint and repave the papal route. “When we host important people it is perfectly normal to tidy the house,” he said.

Allan Lopez, a spokesperson for the government of Ecatepec said that while it was illegal to sell papal tickets, it was not a crime that could result in a prison term. “It is regarded as a type of fraud and would likely lead to a fine or a detention of several hours,” Lopez said.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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