Monday, September 23, 2013


 In most of Latin America mapping is directly linked to national security. While cartography itself has come a long way from two dimensional representations of boundaries, land forms and transportation infrastructure essential to defense, its production and distribution remain firmly in the grasp of the military and its civilian attendants. Those seeking geographical information must thread the needle between the charybdis of military secrecy and the scylla of bureaucratic red tape. Consider the following account, with identities scrubbed for obvious reasons.

 8:00 Early on a Friday morning I left my hotel in a taxi that dropped me at a military security checkpoint.  Here a noncom packing a pistol and an attitude exchanged my passport for a visitor's badge and offered directions by pointing his nose to my right. Further up the road lay a sea green, three story building that houses my destination, the Instituto Geografico Militar.

Inside, a series of glassed-in cubicles and a long table fill the only space open to the public.  The table holds a series of publications: price lists of available products, samples of maps in various scales and formats and a guide to the recently-published national map, at 1:50,000 scale. This is what I had come for. The entire set consists of more than five hundred sheets, divided into quadrants set to satellite images.  I had brought along a wad of dollars and a duffle bag large enough to haul the maps away. The noncom had allowed me to take the duffle past the checkpoint; he did not look in my pocket.

 8:30 An attendant emerged from one of the cubicles to show me the ropes.  "Use this form to list the name and number of each of the sheets you want to purchase," he said, handing me a lined sheet of paper with the Institute's letterhead.  I set pencil to paper, filled the sheet and returned to the attendant for another.  He frowned. "The information must be written in ink, blue ink," he explained, supplying a pen and two additional forms. An hour later, I was back, completed forms in hand. Apparently I telegraphed my next words since before I could pronounce them, my attendant/antagonist interrupted, "no more than fifty requests per day."  That ended my vision of walking out of the building with everything rolled up into a big tube, but not my encounter with regulations.

 9:30 Now another man, an auditor perhaps, emerged from his office to review my work. With his pen, red ink, he marked each of my selections, "yes" or "no" as he mumbled a running commentary, "mining area," "out of print," "restricted" to justify his rejections.  The auditor whittled my request from fifty to thirty-eight sheets; still worth the trouble, I thought. 

My next stop was with a secretary who typed, at ten words a minute, the name and number of the thirty-eight available maps on official looking stationery and calculated the cost, $170.  She also had me declare why I wanted the maps and then pointed me in the direction of a cashier who took a copy of the typed form and the three bills that I offered in payment.  Without uttering a word, he swiveled his chair and pointed  to a sign on the wall that read "NO CURRENCY LARGER THAN $20 ACCEPTED."

 11:00 The office would close at noon for the weekend, and there was no way for me to get seven twenty dollar bills in an hour.  The cashier listened to my explanation of how far I had come and how valuable the maps would be to researchers.  He responded with a single word, "NEXT." My only route lay in going above his head.  Searching the room for a higher authority, I spied a likely suspect, a man dressed in a suit reading a newspaper. I explained my predicament, waiving my order and my money.  He listened sympathetically, smiled and took the documentation and the bills through a door marked "Employees Only." For a moment it seemed that I would leave with neither maps nor money. But no, back he came following an elegantly-dressed woman, his boss.

After introducing herself, she listened as I recounted my situation.  She asked to see the bills and pulled a jeweler's loupe out of a drawer. Now that's interesting, I thought.  Do you suppose a loupe is standard office equipment, like scissors or a stapler?  "We have to be very careful with large bills," she explained, "foreign counterfeiters are active in my country." After inspecting the engraving through the loupe and swabbing the ink with alcohol, she declared the bills genuine and instructed the man in the suit to accompany me to the cashier who grudgingly accepted my money and stamped the receipts as paid.

Turning around I noticed the secretary hailing me with a paper in her hand.  "Since you are not a citizen, you must complete this form to petition the commanding general to release the maps; come back in two weeks."  This was the time to offer a bribe, but I'm not very good at that, and since I was the last customer in the office, all eyes seemed fixed on us.  So rather than money, I offered a last-ditch suggestion. "What if I ask a citizen to pick up the maps?"  "Well, sure, you could do that," she said, and we all went to lunch.

Independence Day

September 16th, the day in 1810 when Father Hidalgo called for Mexico's independence from Spain, is now celebrated throughout the republic.  Although Hidalgo's revolt would be brutally suppressed and a decade would pass before Spanish forces were finally expelled, the priest's public pronouncement, the "grito," is recognized as the declaration of Mexican independence.  To commemorate the event, the president, from a balcony on the National Palace, waves the flag and shouts Hidalgo's grito, "Viva Mexico." September 16th, 2013, will surely be remembered as an Independence Day like no other.

The national poll of July 1, 2012, elected Enrique Peña Nieto to the Presidency and returned the PRI political party to the executive after a twelve-year absence.  This made 2013 the year of Pena's first grito, and though his six-year term will include another five, the first observance is often seen as a harbinger of things to come.  Based on the week's events, Mr. Pena may well be wishing he were in another line of work.

On September 13 Federal Police, supported by helicopters, tear gas and water cannons, forced protesters from the Zócalo, Mexico City's historic center and the site of the National Palace.  The eviction assured that Peña's grito would not have to directly compete with the demonstrators for attention.  However, a subsequent encampment at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución kept the demonstrators and their demands solidly in background. And meteorological events, beyond Peña's control but reflecting on his competence, would soon enter front and center.

As the President braved a downpour to review the troops from the National Palace, and I arrived at the airport, Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel simultaneously struck the Gulf and Pacific coasts.  High winds, heavy rain and collateral flooding destroyed property, stranded coastal settlements and thousands of tourists in Acapulco, and called into question the effectiveness of Mexico's storm warning system. Fingers pointed; talk radio erupted.  Peña and members of his cabinet immediately scrambled to the coasts, but heavy damage to transport infrastructure hampered delivery of supplies, and enraged tourists occupied runways at the Acapulco airport.

Later in the week key elements of Peña's economic program came under fire, notably the proposal to open Mexico's national petroleum monopoly, Pemex, to foreign ownership.  On September 18th, Jornada, Mexico City's respected daily newspaper, published the text of Cuauthemoc Cardenas' recent speech, a withering summary of the events leading to his father's nationalization of the Mexican oil industry in 1938 and Pemex's recent failures to attract foreign investment.  Other dignitaries would soon share Cardenas' critique.

On September 20th the skies cleared, the protesters abandoned their encampment at the Plaza de la Revolución and the tourists left Acapulco.  As I leave, I try to remember the observation that a friend offered as we arranged for a pick up of my purchases.  I urged him to meet me early the next morning based on my experience dealing with rush hour traffic congestion and unpredictable protest marches in the central city.  "I'll come at 5:00 this afternoon," he reassured me. "This is Mexico."