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Ask an old gringo: economy, retirement and the drug business

Marvin West

Question: Is Mexico a religious country?

Answer: More yes than no. Statistics say the country is 96 per cent Catholic. Like a lot of others, some Mexicans don't practice what they preach. From observation only, it appears more women than men are serious about their faith.

It also appears other denominations are finding small niches. You may have to look but there are protestant churches. Missionaries come and go. Evangelical types ring our doorbell and hand out suggestions. One church in our area is growing in an unusual way. The pastor offers two Sunday morning services, one modern, one traditional.

Mexicans are dedicated to religious traditions. Easter, Christmas, christenings and consecration get a lot of attention.

Question: We are considering Mexico for retirement. How and where do we start?

Answer: Google. Read MexConnect free archives. Learn about tourist visas and border requirements. Come visit. Prioritize what you are seeking. Analyze pluses and minuses.

Twelve years ago, we were looking for pleasant winter weather. Got it. We were hoping to continue learning, exploring new places, enjoying gentle adventures. Bingo! Good neighbors, ripe fruit and flowers in bloom were additional blessings. Cost of living was a bonus.

Here are the fundamentals: If you have no grasp of Spanish, start in an area where some English is spoken. Judging by the concentration of Americans and Canadians, the shores of Lake Chapala in Jalisco is one such place. San Miguel de Allende is another. It probably costs more.

Don't dive in. Toe first, then step by step. Rent before you buy. Reduce the language gap. Be patient. Don't expect to change Mexico the first two weeks.

Question: Crime, violence, drug war, army checkpoints, how bad is it?

Answer: Bad news makes bigger headlines. Most of Mexico seems harmonious and safe enough, discounting political rallies, teacher strikes, farmer protests and outbursts of fiesta fireworks. Some naps are disturbed by loud music and barking dogs.

Lightness aside, there are places we wouldn't go at night, even with an armed guard. Certain border towns have deadly zones. There are several ways to get hurt or killed.

We see army checkpoints as positives instead of negatives. Soldiers we've encountered have been professionally polite. One mistook me for a celebrity and asked for my autograph.

Question: Economy?

Answer: Wish you hadn't asked. Much of Mexico productivity depends on U.S. markets. The northern slump or depression or disaster inflicts a serious southern toll. Unemployment is increasing. Some businesses have closed. The peso has been up and down. More down.

Here's a yardstick: The Mexican Banking Association says 1.3 million borrowers defaulted in 2008 and the trend is continuing. Credit card debt did most of the damage.

Home mortgages and credit purchases are a relatively recent affliction in Mexico. For generations, people paid for what they bought. Now, there are 26 million credit cards running loose in the country, most in big cities. Consumer debt classified as risky or worse now totals 51 billion pesos. Alarm bells are ringing in banks.

Mexico's auto production took a terrible tumble earlier in the year. January output dropped 57 percent from the previous January. February production was down 38 percent from 2008. Officials said it was the worst two months since 1995.

Question: Do many Americans get arrested in Mexico?

Answer: Not many, considering the numbers that come and go. Tijuana locked up 520 last year. Guadalajara, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico City, Mérida and Nogales are next in line. Those who run the drunk tank in Cancun are too busy to keep count.

There is a simple formula for staying out of Mexican jails: Behave semi-logically. Don't do anything you wouldn't do north of the border.

Question: How does the Mexico drug business work?

Answer: Here's a peek at one small, simple operation. U.S. investigators recently arrested 48 members of the Ramon Narciso Morales-Mendoza family in southern California. These Oaxaca Indians, atypical in the business, are accused of operating an international drug ring for two decades, smuggling heroin in cars and trucks through Tijuana.

They supposedly sold 60 to 80 pounds per month, generating roughly $24 million a year in profits. Much of the money came back to Mexico.

The family escaped detection by keeping it simple, a coffee grinder to cut the drug, quarter-gram bags wholesaled to 11 street gangs focused in east Los Angeles. The Mendozas did not flaunt success. They communicated in code, in an Oaxacan dialect that forever confused wiretappers. They had a soft touch, Christmas bonuses of free heroin for their salesmen.

Multiply this little story by a thousand or three and imagine how the big boys do it.

Published or Updated on: May 5, 2009 by Marvin West © 2009
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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