Women fall victim to violence in Mexico’s decade-old war on drugs

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MEXICO CITY, Dec 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Denisse Velasco has been suffering from acute anxiety since spring, when she narrowly escaped being abducted from a busy street in Guadalajara, Mexico.

She was waiting at a bus stop one morning when a man jumped out of a taxi and tried to force her inside. Velasco suspects it was a drug trafficker intent on kidnapping her for ransom.

Read the complete article at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Mexico’s drug war as seen through the eyes of children

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Guadalajara, Mexico – One image captures a fierce shoot-out between rival drug cartels, with several lifeless bodies slumped on the street in pools of their own blood. Another shows a gang member hurling a grenade at a police officer. A third features a collection of Kalashnikov and Armalite assault rifles, the weapons of choice for Mexico’s cartel hitmen.

These are not photographs, but children’s drawings depicting the harsh realities of Mexico’s decade-long drug war. They uncover the mental scars borne by a generation exposed to extreme violence, many of whom distrust government forces and admire narco-culture.

Elementary school students produced the drawings as part of an investigation into the effects of the conflict on children in northern Jalisco, an impoverished area plagued by violent crime.

Read the complete article at Al Jazeera English.

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Tepoztlan: The mystic mountain village

Tepozteco mountain dwarfs the village below, Tepoztlan (Photo modified from Richard Cawood original via Flickr, www.RichardCawood.com)

After a childhood spent in a grey London satellite town, I am wide open to the enticements of more exotic climes. Mexico, with its stunning diversity of landscapes, beliefs and traditions, was always going to be somewhere that fired my imagination. Sign me up for mountain shamans, prophetic visions and Aztec serpent gods.

The village of Tepoztlan in central Mexico attracts a steady stream of visitors who are drawn by its reputation for mysticism and spirituality. A healing energy is attributed to the town, owing to the legend that it is the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. As a result, in recent years, Tepoztlan has attracted followers of a multitude of spiritual practices: from meditation and yoga, to ayahuasca and crystal healing.

Read the complete article at Travel Mag.

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‘I tracked down my mother in the Amazon rainforest’

david-facepaint-848x250My parents had a very unconventional marriage: my father is an American anthropologist and my mother is a member of the Yanomami tribe living in a remote corner of the Amazon. They were betrothed according to the Yanomami system in 1979, while my dad was living with the group in Venezuela.

Read the complete article at the Financial Times.

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Santa Muerte and transgender sex workers in Mexico

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‘I rode “The Beast” as research for my film’

maxresdefaultDiego Quemada-Díez as told to Stephen Woodman

Back in 2002, I was living by the railroad tracks in Mazatlán on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

I started talking to migrants who were passing through town and I was deeply moved by their stories. It struck me that they were heroes who were putting their lives in great danger for the sake of their families. I wanted to share their stories. I hoped that by giving voice to migrants through film I could help generate dialogue, empathy and understanding.

The screenplay to my feature film “The Golden Dream” was based on over 600 testimonies I had gathered over the course of seven years.

I decided to concentrate many of those testimonies into a group of three teenagers traveling on the freight train through Mexico that migrants call “La Bestia” (The Beast).

Juan, the lead character, sets off on the journey believing in the western model of progress and the American Dream. He’s accompanied by Chauk, a Tzotzil Mayan boy who speaks no Spanish. I wanted to portray Juan learning from Chauk, and adopting his different outlook towards people and the environment. People always want to change indigenous thinking and behavior, so I wanted to portray this process happening the other way around.

The dynamic was largely based on my own experience of learning from Chak, an indigenous Mexican who is a very good friend of mine.

Through the third character Sara, I introduced the drama of migrant women and sexual exploitation. Several studies show that the majority of female migrants are raped en route to the United States. During my interviews, one woman told me that when she was a little girl her mother disguised her in order to allow her to continue the journey. I was shocked by that detail and I decided to include it. Sara wraps a bandage over her breasts and hides under a baseball cap. In an attempt to survive, she has to negate her identity and become someone else.solorzano01-600pix_0

We filmed in chronological order so the actors would actually have an experience instead of simply acting a part. I learned that method from my mentor, the British director Ken Loach.

For the seven-year research process I traveled through Mexico visiting various migrant shelters. I also went to Guatemala and the United States.

In Los Angeles, I visited various deportation centers for children. They call them homes, but they are much closer to prisons.

I also visited meat-packing factories in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to include them in the film because it’s dangerous, tough work that only migrants will do.

Researching the film was very dangerous at times. On a few occasions, I survived being kidnapped or shot. In Sinaloa, a drug dealer called Vitamina thought I was filming him. He approached me, put a gun to my head and said he was going to kill me. Finally he let me show him footage which convinced him I was not filming him at all. He eventually let me go and said next time I better talk to him first.

I learned that day that you always have to talk to all the locals and let them know what you’re doing.

I included a similar scene in the film as a kind of homage to Vitamina. If he hadn’t have let me go, I wouldn’t be here today.

Later, when we filmed the movie, I already knew which areas to avoid. We would always hire locals and let everyone know what we were doing. That way, the filming process went quite smoothly.

Getting the film funded and accepted was no easy task, but I kept persevering. Finally, I was invited to Cannes to present the project to different industry professionals at L’Atelier. In the end, people were impressed by the amount of research and the photographs. I was finally able to present the film at Cannes a few years later.

I’ve had to push for the finished film to be distributed in the United States and it still hasn’t been seen as much as I would like. I think it is vital to show the point of view of migrants right now.

Globalization has taken jobs abroad, so I understand that people want to protect their livelihoods and local economy. But it’s important that people realize that migrants are not criminals.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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New tequila and mezcal regulations upset local producers

The heart of the agave plant (Photo omarsan via Flickr)

For under 200 pesos ($10), visitors to the picturesque Mexican town of Tequila can purchase a fitting souvenir from the hawker stalls lining the roads: a three-litre wooden barrel labelled as tequila. Yet the drink inside is not Mexico’s national spirit, but an illicit concoction of distilled sugar cane and hangover-inducing additives.

Read the complete article at the Financial Times.

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Magic and melancholy in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo

A cycle rickshaw, Aracataca (Photo Stephen Woodman).JPGFrom the moment my bus rumbles to a stop outside Aracataca station, I have the sense that an entire sleeping village is rising from my memory. The scorched streets, rusted tin roofs and dusty almond trees—I instantly recognise it all from my imagination.

Read the complete article at Travel Mag.

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The women transforming Mexican cinema

Women directors are still a rarity in Hollywood.  A new investigation by film industry site the Wrap discovered that two of Hollywood’s major studios, 20th Century Fox and Paramount, have no films by female directors scheduled to come out between now and 2018.

In Mexico, the situation is decidedly brighter. According to the “Statistical Yearbook of Mexican Cinema,” by 2007, women directed around 10 percent of annual productions. By 2015, this figure had reached 25 percent, almost triple the percentage of women directors in Hollywood.

While women directors in Mexico still face great hurdles, the numbers suggest that the country’s cinema industry is heading in the right direction. Although Mexican cinema has often had women protagonists, stereotypical Cinderella figures and femme fatales have typically displaced more three-dimensional characters. Few film critics doubt that fresh female voices and gender diversity bring artistic benefits to cinema.

But women in leadership roles may also boost financial performance. According to Cinepolis, Mexico’s major movie theater chain, 52 percent of cinema-goers are women, compared to only 48 percent of men, so engaging with female audience members is vital for the industry.

In this context, a few women directors, such as Maria Novaro and Patricia Riggen, have achieved commercial success both home and abroad.

Novaro’s debut feature “Lola” from 1989, tells the story of a single mother played by Leticia Huijara, who is forced to sell her clothes to provide for her daughter in an earthquake-ravaged Mexico City.

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Novaro was among the first generation of female Mexican filmmakers. Her five-feature directorial career reflects the increased participation of women in film studies programs and education as a whole.

It also reflects the government policies of Presidents Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both administrations were keen to benefit from the prestige of a thriving national cinema and actively encouraged women’s involvement in the industry. Under this patronage, women filmmakers like Novaro were able to secure state support and eventually make moves in the commercial sector.

In today’s environment, female filmmakers may be uniquely placed to capitalize on skewed box office statistics, as Mexican studios look to tap into the lucrative U.S. market, which already provides 60 percent of revenue.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, women make up more than half of total cinema-goers. Yet the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film says women directed only nine percent of films in 2015, and for the top 100 grossing films of 2015 females comprised only 22 percent of protagonists.

patricia-riggenGuadalajara-born Riggen is one of Mexico’s most successful Hollywood crossover filmmakers, having directed stars such as Antonio Banderas, Patricia Arquette and Eva Mendes. Her greatest commercial success to date was this year’s Christian family drama “Miracles from Heaven.”

Riggen burst onto the scene in 2007 with “Under the Same Moon,” which received a standing ovation at the Sundance film festival as well as good commercial distribution in the United States.

The film centers on Rosario, a Mexican migrant played by Kate Del Castillo. Rosario works as a cleaner in Los Angeles to support her son and mother in Mexico. Unlike most immigration films, the issues are explored through the perspectives of a loving mother and her hopeful young son. “We are used to immigration films that are very dark and depressing, and are cruel,” Riggen says. “I wanted to make a film that migrants would like.”

When asked whether the plot was based on a real story, Riggen answered: “There are four million Mexican migrant women in the United States who have been forced to abandon their children, so ‘Under the Same Moon,’ is based on four million real stories.”

Riggen’s extraordinary success should not obscure the obstacles she was forced to overcome.

“I’ve worked really, really hard and had to fight a lot,” she says. “It’s not just the film industry, it’s a worldwide thing. It’s the culture of the world to doubt women.”

While only a handful of female directors have moved into the commercial film sector, many others, such as Tatiana Huezo, have forged successful careers in independent film.

The Salvadorean-Mexican Huezo is a product of the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), a prestigious Mexico City film school. Her upcoming documentary “Tempestad” (Tempest) has received glowing reviews.

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The documentary tracks the parallel journeys of two women whose lives have been torn apart by the corruption and injustice of modern Mexico. Miriam travels from a violent jail in Matamoros, northern Mexico, where she was imprisoned for “people trafficking” without a single shred of evidence.

Adela works as a clown in a traveling circus. Ten years ago, her daughter, Monica, vanished without trace.

Film critics have identified Huezo and Natalia Bruschtein, a fellow CCC graduate, as the leaders of an exciting new wave of documentary filmmaking.

U.S. critic Matt Turner says that in Mexico, “all eyes are on documentary, and most of the nation’s pre-eminent new documentarians are female.” 234229

Elisa Miller, another CCC graduate, was the first Mexican woman to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for her 2007 short “Ver Llover” (“Watching it Rain”). Last year, she released her second feature film, “El placer es mío” (“The Pleasure Is Mine”), a tense drama about an urbanite couple who try to start a new life in the countryside.

Like Huezo, Miller’s films foreground female experience and challenge the conservative status quo that still dominates Mexican mass media. They also reference and portray the many levels of violence that vast numbers of Mexican women face on a daily basis. In a country where six women are murdered every day and 44 percent have suffered domestic violence, it is not surprising that female directors want to lend a voice to victims.

“I’ve been criticized for being a feminist. I’ve even been categorized as provocative. But someone has to do this,” Miller says.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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As Catholic priests are killed in Mexico, questions and tensions rise

Weapons seized from criminal gangs are displayed before being destroyed by military personnel at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (RNS) Even in a rural Mexican community that has grown accustomed to the news of brutal killings, the abduction and murder of a popular Catholic priest has triggered profound shock and outrage.

The bullet-ridden body of the Rev. Jose Lopez Guillen was found Sept. 24 on the highway outside Puruandiro in the western state of Michoacan, a region plagued by violent conflict. The 43-year-old cleric had been abducted from his home in nearby Janamuato five days earlier.

Read the complete article at Religious New Service.

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