Guest Columns

SMITH: BE BRAVE LIKE A LION

Politics in Mexico, unlike in our country, is a real matter of life and death

I was told to fight and be brave like a lion,” Maria Lopez, the Mayor of Palomas, Mexico says to me. It’s November 11 and we’re in a barren little office in the municipal building in Palomas.

In the United States, political life is full of phrases like “political courage,” “bold positions” or “standing up for principles.” But, by and large, the only danger to U.S. politicians is criticism and perhaps defeat at the polls. They get to go home to their families when it’s all over. That’s not so true in Mexico where politics has become a life or death matter. Here are some examples.

In the tiny town of Tancitaro, the town administrator, secretary of the city council, the entire City Council and all of the police department resigned after the fathers of two of them were kidnapped.

Maria Lopez, the mayor of Palomas, Mexico, from the death of Tanys Garcia until November 2010.
Photo by Morgan Smith
A political ad for Tanys Garcia painted on wall in Palomas.
Photo by Morgan Smith
Young street musicians hoping to make a few pesos.
Photo by Morgan Smith

In Vicente Guerrero in the state of Durango, the police chief and four officers were kidnapped and have never been found. The rest of the police department resigned.

In Novolato, 25 police, two city councilmen and a town administrator have been killed in the last two years.

In Namiquipa, the mayor and two top town officials were murdered in 2009.

Ciudad Mier, near the border in the state of Tamaulipas, has simply been taken over by gunmen. Basic services like water and electricity have collapsed, there is no government and most of the residents have had to flee.

Last July, Rodolfo Torre, the front running candidate for Governor of Tamaulipas was murdered in broad daylight. On August 29, the Mayor of Hidalgo, Marco Antonio Leal was murdered and his ten year old daughter shot in the leg. Only two weeks earlier, his predecessor, Cesáreo Rocha was also shot to death.

Maria Lopez, who was the Mayor of Palomas when I met with her, knows this history too well. The only reason that she became Mayor was that her predecessor, Stanislao “Tanys” Garcia was murdered on October 9, 2009. As his assistant or “suplente,” she then very reluctantly took over, becoming the only woman Mayor in all of the state of Chihuahua.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Maria has lived in Palomas for many years and has a long record of humanitarian work. When I first tried to meet with her, for example, she was working late at night helping volunteers from Deming, Silver City and Santa Fe get food through Mexican customs for La Casa de Amor Para Niños, an orphanage in Palomas that was founded and is supported by a coalition of New Mexico churches.

Prior to becoming the suplente, she was the local director of the DIF (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia or the equivalent of the Children and Family departments in most states). To quote Jim Noble of La Casa, “When Mayor Tanys was assassinated, she had to decide whether or not to assume the dangerous job that had cost his life. With much prayer, she felt that she needed to do this for the good of the people of Palomas, despite her great fear.” He mentions that she and her husband have saved $500 to redo their roof but are now considering spending it to buy food for the poor in Palomas.

What is life like in Palomas, I ask her. She tells me that it seems much safer, but little does she know that 20 bodies will be found in a mass grave near Palomas at the end of November. The population has dropped from about 9,000 to 5,000. People have fled. There is work but no money to pay for it. A person could find an eleven hour a day job and only make $4-5 but there is nothing that can generate real employment. A maquila plant was set up but quickly went out of business. The water is salty and not good for agriculture. Visits from American shoppers have dropped off dramatically. On a recent visit I stopped in the well-known Pink Store (where two of her sons work in the kitchen) and there were only two customers in the whole store.

What makes someone like Maria take on an office like this immediately after her predecessor has been assassinated? Why are there still so many state and municipal officials still willing to serve in Mexico, despite the risks? I’ve met many courageous volunteers who continue working in places like Palomas and Juarez but many of them are from the United States. They can come and go; they don’t have to stay in these communities where everyone knows where they live, what kind of car they drive, who their family members are. They’re not being watched as Maria has been.

In Maria’s case, many members of the community asked her to serve. In addition, there was the fact of being the only woman to serve as Mayor in all of Chihuahua, of wanting to show that a woman could do this job. In fact, she was able to show specific accomplishments like completing the second floor of the municipal building and getting the building painted.

Mexico is fortunate to have people like Maria Lopez who are willing to serve their communities, who are “ brave like a lion.” The tragedy is that they cannot be better protected.

Morgan Smith has served as Commissioner of the Colorado House of Representatives (1979-82), Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (1982-86), and the Director of the Colorado International Trade Office (1989-99), where he served as the Governor’s spokesperson on international issues. In addition, Smith directed a legal clinic for day laborers at El Centro Humanitario de los Trabajadores (2004-05), and received IIE’s Citizen Diplomat Award in 2007.