Expats gone wild? Or locals gone loco?

About a week ago, a provocative link came up on Twitter. Joshua Holland of Alternet had posted it, and it was a doozer: “Expats Gone Wild”, was the story, all about “an invasion of misguided foreigners” wreaking havoc in Mexico.

Well, I posted it as part of a Short ‘n’ Stubby compilation, and a few hours later, heard back from an expat blog-buddy in Mexico assuring me it wasn’t aboveboard. So I took a closer look, and sure enough, there was plenty of hinkitude in there. Let’s take it apart bit by bit, shall we?

The article centres on the city of Mérida, on the Yucatan peninsula. To hear the author, one Louis V. Nevaer, tell it, Mérida is awash in “a plague of scoundrels, airheads and doomsday believers”. So who are these loco human locusts? Helpfully, Nevaer gives it to us in point form:

Accused scam artists from Texas have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars through Brazos Abiertos, Inc., an AIDS charity that apparently has never been authorized by Mexican officials to do business in Mexico, according to records provided by the country’s tax authority, known as the SHCP. Lavish fundraising parties and events duped unsuspecting benefactors. The scandal has caused much consternation in Merida’s blogosphere, and outrage at the “plague” of foreign “scoundrels.” (The IRS is reportedly  investigating the organization.)

My blog-buddy let me know that this is a case of the author’s personal ax-grinding. In his words, “His problem with Brazos Abiertos [linkage added] is that it is incorporated in Texas so it can do fundraising in the U.S…. that and author’s would-be toy boy went to work for them and hell hath no fury, etc)”. In another e-mail, he added: “I don’t think Brazos Abiertos receives more than in-kind contributions in Mexico (medical services, mostly) which wouldn’t be tax deductible in any case.” In other words, a perfectly respectable organization. Except for the fact that it’s (legally) bi-national, and that it lured a prospective “toy boy” away. Therefore, it’s evil.

When I googled it myself, using the terms “Brazos Abiertos, IRS investigation”, what came up at the top of the search was nothing but Nevaer’s own sketchy “reporting” on the matter–and a number of local expat bloggers very credibly refuting it. One would think that if this organization were really so shady, there’d be more to choose from! I doubt very much that the Texan newspapers would be silent on the matter, given that the charity is registered in that state.

The next point is even more bizarre:

An “unofficial” library has operated for years, soliciting donations. The so-called Merida English Library has boasted that it is a member of the prestigious American Library Association, when its membership lapsed in 2007. It has presented itself as bona fide “Mexican nonprofit organization” — but it has never met the requirements established by Mexico’s tax authority to solicit donations from the public or issue tax-deductible receipts, according to information supplied by the SHCP.

Writes my amigo:

The Merida English Language Library (MELL) may not have issued the right tax forms for all I know.  The regulations on charities and not-for-profits isn’t all that clear, and the regulations have changed over the past couple of years.  Even my accountant is confused.  At any rate, it’s just a little English-language library for the expats, run by one guy, a self-published poet, and a bunch of little old ladies who come in and shelve books.  Same as the English-language libraries all around Mexico, which seem to have a secondary purpose of giving retiree expats with nothing better to do an excuse to kvetch.  In Oaxaca, the local English-language library had a ridiculous fight (replete with gringos trying to sue each other in Oaxaca based on U.S. law) over… about 12 dollars missing from a petty cash drawer.  Here, poor Lorraine finally had to beg a Notario to help her turn our library into a regular S.C. (Sociedad Civil) so the library board could at least pay her a living wage without everyone whining about why she was paid (umm… because she’s a professional librarian and needs to eat?)  That our bookstore donates a shitpile of books to the Mazatlan Library isn’t something we report on our taxes, but our accountant has never seen fit to ask us to do so, nor has the bookstore never had a problem with the tax authorities.

Gee, that doesn’t sound half so horrible now, does it? In any case, an English-language library for expats is hardly a lucrative source of income for the Mexican tax collectors to tap. Libraries everywhere are pretty hand-to-mouth, if they’re not run with government subsidies or endowments from wealthy patrons. And since these tend to serve a small niche community, a tax collector could starve to death before getting any big dinero out of them. If he were inclined to bother. Which, by the sounds of things, the Mexican federales are not.

The third point, though, really sounds sensational…

Gringo Zapatistas running amok have unnerved residents. Of equal concern has been the disclosure that a husband-and-wife team of aging Gringo Zapatistas have been aiding and abetting the Zapatists uprising and their supporters. “We offered them our guest room, our office to work in, and our car (with us as drivers) to ferry them around the Yucatan,” Ellen and James Fields declared in the “NarcoNews.” “As it happened, we also loaned them some of our video and computer equipment, helped them find hotel rooms with some of our clients, and threw in a few dinners and breakfasts for good measure. So this year we donated more than we ever have in the past to the cause of alternative media. And we’re just getting warmed up.” That these self-styled Che Guevara “activists” have been hiding in plain sight has unsettled Mexicans, since foreigners are strictly prohibited from interfering in Mexico’s political process.

…until you realize that something here doesn’t pass the smell test. The author is big on the whole “Gringo Zapatista” thing, but he completely neglects to mention the most interfering band of gringos in all of Mexico…namely, the Mexico City station of the CIA. None of them lurk around in ski masks like Subcomandante Marcos, though. In fact, they are notoriously right-wing, and tend to back factions of that persuasion all over Latin America. The region’s long history of fascist coups, particularly from the 1950s onward, speaks for itself.

As for the two unfortunates named as aiding and abetting the “Gringo Zapatistas”, my amigo writes:

The attack on Jim and Ellen Fields was plain nasty.  Journalists (and they do own a legitimate Mexican publication and web design company, registered in the State of Yucatan did indeed provide some workspace and equipment for Narco News to use when it was doing some reporting from Merida.  Narco News is also a legitimate Mexican publisher, and there’s nothing sinister about it.  The source for the NAM article posted on his website (the post appearing while the Fields were back in the U.S. for their son’s funeral… dirty pool that!) had to find Mexican fascists to quote as complaining about the supposed “interference” in Mexican politics. I believe the Fields are Mexican citizens btw, though I’ve never asked.

So, the “Gringo Zapatistas” are legitimate local journalists, possibly naturalized citizens, who only have contact with the Zapatistas, but are not members themselves? Somehow, that deflates this tall tale considerably.

And since I’ve used the odd NarcoNews piece on this blog (finding that their coverage of Mexico, if not perhaps their naïve view of last September’s coup attempt in Ecuador, had a general ring of truth about it), I’m not convinced that the locals are terrorized by Zapatistas (gringo OR native), either. One thing I’ve noticed about the Zapatistas is their extraordinary staying power–and in a political climate as fractious and volatile as Mexico’s can get, that’s evidence in their favor, not their contrary. But then, if you’ve been following their revolution with even half an ounce of attention, you’ll know that the slow and largely peaceful approach is in fact typical of them; their local associations are called caracoles–“conch shells”, or more generally, “snails”. They are not exactly your old-school Marxist guerrillas, seeking to revolutionize whole regions at lightning speed through warfare. The idea seems to be to build up resistance gradually and in a sustainable manner. Something like the slow-moving conch, in other words; it builds up its spiral shell little by little. Hardly the stuff of sensationalism, I would say.

Another expat source, a Canadian who has had her own run-ins with the sensationalist, helpfully pointed me to this piece on a local English-language site serving the Yucatan Peninsula’s expat community. It further debunks the nonsense about the Fields with a letter from Narco News publisher Al Giordano:

Jim and Ellen Fields are good and honest people who have never supported any “terrorist” organization or anything like that. The accusation is so silly as to be laughable. They have supported *journalism* about a 2006 speaking-and-listening tour by the Zapatistas of Chiapas, which are notably *not* on the US government list of terrorist organizations and in fact are legally recognized by the Mexican government as involved in an ongoing peace process, a government which furnished federal police security for the Zapatista spokesman during that six-month 2006 national tour, which was reported also by every major national and international news organization in Mexico, just as Narco News reported on it. Would Mr. Nevaer accuse the New York Times and the Washington Post of supporting “terrorists” because they reported the same story?

Finally, Mr. Nevaer’s maliciously false statements that Narco News “supports drug traffickers” are evidently false to everyone who has read our online newspaper over the past ten years. To the contrary, our reporting has investigated and exposed hundreds of cases of drug trafficking and related official corruption in many countries (not just Mexico) including the United States. We invite anyone interested to simply review our reports at http://www.narconews.com and draw their own conclusions on the honest and authentic journalism we practice every day. Given that Mr. Nevaer – who we do not know and have never had any contact with – is the only party here that has been judged guilty of serious crimes, including defamation, we find his claims about others to be non-credible and lead us to question his emotional stability and credibility.

Oh dear. Louis Nevaer has been sued for defamation? Yes, indeed. Clicky here, here and here for details. (Documents in PDF format. Make sure you have the Adobe Reader.)

And then there’s this:

More ominously, U.S. authorities has identified two Americans— Mario E. Lopez and Jose Auais Dogre—as the masterminds of an international ring trafficking in stolen luxury boats and yachts. Mexican officials have enlisted the help of Bill Dobson, who works for the International Association of Marine Investigators, to spearhead ongoing investigations into the theft of these luxury vessels from the U.S. which are being sold to Mexican businessmen and politicians in the Yucatan.

I did find one item on these accused yacht bandits. Unfortunately, it paints a rather bad picture of the “Mexican officials” in question, since in a related article, the complaints are that “they know what’s going on but aren’t doing anything”. Plus, the thieves are named as Yucatan natives linked to the Cuban-American mafia, NOT gringos. Stretching the truth a bit, are we, Sr. Nevaer?

From there on, it degenerates into utter silliness:

A growing number of Americans in Mexico are disaffected with the U.S. and life under Barack Obama. Some, now labeled “Refugiados de Obamanomics,” are intent on escaping to a country where there is the sense of greater personal freedoms. “I can smoke in restaurants and no femi-Nazi take umbrage if I call someone a babe,” an Old Gringo, who wanted to remain anonymous, said.

I wasn’t aware that smoking in restaurants–or calling women “babes”–had become illegal in the United States, much less under Barack Obama. I’m sure it’s news to my many US friends, as well! And why does this silly “Old Gringo” merit anonymity, when the others above get named and their names dragged through the mud? Maybe it’s because he’s trashing his own country, rather than Nevaer’s Mexico?

And oh look, another slam at a “clandestine” English-language library:

Others speak on the record—or at least on YouTube clips. “I like the fact that the government doesn’t interfere in my life. I like the fact that it’s not a litigious society. I’m not concerned about somebody suing me for this or that. I’m really not concerned about being sued. You’re not run and manipulated and controlled by government and big corporations who are dictating terms of living on the television, by your taxes, by political decree,” Mitch Keenan, president of the clandestine English Language Library, said in a clip promoting his real estate company.

My gosh, you’d think the land was being overrun by a mafia of gringo librarians, trafficking in the terrifying contraband of libros en inglés. Next!

Betty Steinmuller, a retired schoolteacher from Boston, moved to Merida to escape the dismal U.S. health care system. “[It’s] ridiculously expensive—that’s why I moved here,” she told Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show.

Although she self-identifies as an American Healthcare Refugee, Steinmuller has wasted no time in joining the ranks of Dubious Expats: She is one of the founders of Merida Verde, an environmental group that has been soliciting donations since 2008 — even though it has not been authorized to do so by Mexico’s tax authorities, according to the SHCP.

Oh no, a gringo environmentalist mafia, too! Who knew that local conservation could be so shady? I’m sure the authorities are just all over that one!

But wait…the silliest bit is yet to come:

As if the local authories don’t have enough to deal with on their hands, more doomsday-believing Americans are flocking to the Yucatan  as 2012 approaches.

Recently, two groups of these expats have arrived—one has bought up extensive tracts of land in the Yucatan near the Maya town of Oxkutzcab, where members have gone about building “bunker-style” strongholds. These “settlers” claim to be building a new  “Noah’s Ark,” but Mexican authorities fear this could be the scene of a Jim Jones-style mass suicide.

Another group, more perplexing, believe that, in preparation for the “End of Times,” they must revive the ancient Maya practice of ritualized alcoholic enemas. The presence of a community of Americans dedicated to administering alcoholic enemas—or “Colonic Irrigationists,” as they call themselves— is beginning to raise concerns.

Y’okay. While there are undoubtedly plenty of people all over the world who consider the year 2012 to be doomsday (and there are more of them in the US than there are “overrunning” Mexico), there are plenty more who understand that it’s simply the furthest ahead that the Mayan astronomers could accurately calculate. Most people I hear talking about that date as “doomsday” consider it to be a joke.

Nonetheless, just to get behind Nevaer’s crazy claims, I decided to google the specific people he mentions here. And what did I find?

Well, a Google search of the terms “Oxkutzcab, doomsday” revealed…Louis Nevaer’s piece (which we can safely ignore), right below this news item, which actually doesn’t say much about the place:

In Yucatan, a group of Italian members of a doomsday cult built in a remote and humble community of Yucatan, Xul, Oxkutzcab station, a ‘City of the end of the world’ which is located 110 kilometers south of Merida today is the heart of the citrus in the region, with high out-migration, on both the U.S. and the Riviera Maya and Cancun, in Quintana Roo.

And that’s it for that one. Aside from the odd and perplexing wording (“heart of the citrus”? I’m going to assume it means “heart of the citrus-growing region”), there’s the fact that the “gringos” here are not from the US or Canada, but Italy. Italian gringos? An Italian “Jim Jones”? Funny how Louis Nevaer doesn’t mention them. I guess that’s because a harmless bunch of mangiamaccheroni doesn’t exactly fit with the theme of “Gringos Gone Wild”!

I also found this Spanish-language piece on the Italian community at Oxkutzcab. Thick-walled stone buildings with solar panels are being constructed there to withstand extreme air temperatures (of 50ºC or thereabouts), fire and flooding. Apparently the architect of the sect’s village (not a “bunker”) is a woman, and a local one at that. Furthermore, this woman–Karina Pérez Valle–“rejects the notion that the Italians’ construction project is with the end of the world in mind, but rather with the idea that ‘difficult times and many climatic inconveniences are coming’.” Undoubtedly that’s true in this age of global warming. But then, that’s true already, and has long been so, well in advance of the year 2012. All indications are that this “cult” is not dangerous, nor is it disruptive to the locals. It sounds like their aim is to live self-sufficiently, sustainably and in harmony with the landscape and climate, praying and keeping to themselves. Not unlike the German-speaking Mennonites of Bolivia, say. “Gringos Gone Wild” indeed!

As for the alcoholic enemas, all the reference material I was able to turn up says that these are dangerous and should not be attempted. One site even calls them “a drinker’s death wish”. Not surprising, since water is absorbed through the colon, and alcohol inserted there would be taken up very quickly, without the normal metabolic processes that drinking entails. I would think that if gringos in the Yucatan were doing that (in such a warm climate, no less), we’d be hearing reports of a rash of alcohol-related deaths. Yet…my search turned up nothing. Only this academic study of the vision-quest rituals of the Mayans, which is very cautiously worded in terms of what was used for the enemas. Mead is one possible substance, perhaps “fortified with hallucinogens”. I imagine drinking the stuff would be a better way to get the requisite visionary buzz, unless perhaps, like peyote, the hallucinogen is something that causes vomiting, in which case it might be better administered rectally–in very modest amounts. Personally, I would never do it except under the supervision of a trained shaman from the local tradition. It doesn’t sound like something I would feel confident experimenting with, either on my own or among a group of fellow North American spiritual seekers.

So perhaps there is a Mayan cultural basis for the alcohol-enema allegation. But gringos currently doing it in the Yucatan? I found nada.

Finally, Nevaer mentions one expat who supposedly finds all this horrifying. Beryl Gorbman, alias the Yucatan Yenta:

Beryl Gorbman, originally from Seattle and a Merida resident for a quarter century, has been so taken aback by the influx of these unsavory and unbalanced Americans, she wrote a novel about them, 2012: Deadly Awakening. “Thousands of spiritual tourists have descended upon this once-peaceful city, creating chaos,” she writes, describing the impact of American Expats Gone Wild in the Yucatan.

As you may have guessed, he misrepresents her, too. Beryl Gorbman is mentioned in the Yucatan Living article referenced above, the one decrying Nevaer and his numerous misdeeds. She has actually written a blog entry setting the story straight on Jim and Ellen Fields, the very “Gringo Zapatistas” whose journalism Nevaer has chosen to twist out of shape. She is indeed the author of a novel about “expats gone wild”, but it is a work of fiction, not a complaint about the havoc present-day expats are allegedly wreaking in the Yucatan. It is also not meant to be construed as an accurate prediction of what will happen when all these alcohol-enema enthusiasts descend on the region in time for doomsday. Her actual thoughts on living as an expat in Mexico are here, and they are considerably more complex than they have been portrayed in Nevaer’s sloppy hit-piece.

Now, how do I get Alternet to reconsider having given this shoddy reporter a page on their site?

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2 Responses to Expats gone wild? Or locals gone loco?

  1. Jim Hadstate says:

    Hey Babe…er…I mean ‘Bina, every ex-pat who is trying to attain permanent residency status or naturalized citizenship status should be given 2 books, shown into a room with a monitor, a bed, a bathroom (private of course) and a reading chair. The books are “The Ugly American” and “The Quiet American”. When they have finished both books, and told that they are expected to live their lives NOT doing everything that the characters in the book do (except maybe the protagonist in “The Quiet American” who was only a vehicle to show the stupidity of the other Americans abroad) and to sign an agreement to such and allowed to complete which ever process they were trying to accomplish or (with apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary) leave on the next jet plane back from whence they crawled out from under their rock. Damn, it feels good to get that off my chest.

    I can’t speak to Mexico, but I can speak to Panama. There are American and Canadian (sorry Your Highness, but its true) ex-pats gone wild flourish. Don Winner, Richard Fifer, etc, etc, ad nauseum. You don’t have to take my word for it. There are two real journalists, Eric Jackson and Okke Ornstein who can give you the low down on these to low life’s (I’m into onomatopoeia today). Their disgusting displays usually revolve not around politics, but around separating retirees from their life savings. Okke, BTW also contributes to Narco News. Eric is a citizen a dual US and Panamanian citizen as am I due to the accident of birth that being born in the Canal Zone allowed us. Okke is a Dutch ex-pat whose citizenship I’m not sure of as if it makes a difference.

    These two journalists run their own respective online newspapers, one with only serious content (The Panama News) and one with serious content but a distinctly snarky manner, The Bananama Republic. The ex-pat community is divided into 3 groups: the rabid wingnuts, the middle of the roaders and the bomb-throwers. The population falls this way: wingnuts-60%, middle of the roaders-35%; bomb-throwers-5%. The con-men always fall in the wingnut grouping. Both of our heroes have been sued for criminal libel (ask me some other time because this is running long) and beaten the rap. The are good guys and good reporters.

    My point is that of those 60% wingnuts, 40% are con-men or con-men cheerleaders. So, just because someone cast aspersions needlessly about ex-pats in your example, there is another side to the story.

    Oh, and BTW, the con-men or horrible destroyers of indigenous lands are about 50-50 Canadian-US, something that shocked the Hell out of me. I always thought of Canadians as polite, helpful, law abiding, environmentally conscious, happy-go-lucky people. I have been horribly disabused of that misapprehension.

  2. Sabina Becker says:

    Jim, I’m in complete agreement with ya there. Those ugly gringos ARE Bhad Nhews. The rich ones are the worst. But these ones? They’re a joke. This Nevaer guy wants us to be afraid of a mafia of tax-evading gringo librarians, environmentalists (the HORROR!), imaginary Zapatistas, and doomsday nutters who drink beer with their bums. It’s not hard to see that he’s actually just waging a vendetta against some innocent people he dislikes. And throwing in a bit of silly sensationalism that even the National Enquirer would reject, in the hopes that unwary readers will lump these hapless librarians and conservationists in with the doomsday kooks and the kids on spring break who shove beer bongs up their bungholes.

    And yeah, we got home-grown wingnuts up here, too, more of them than we need. Most live out west, but Toronto has a surprising concentration of ignorant assholes, too. I’m sure the Mexicans have met some of them already.

    Ironically, though, the worst trouble we’ve had with gringos gone wild is a few young guys on road trips who just couldn’t hold their beer. Ours is generally more than 5% alcohol by volume; US beer is a weak 4%. Anyone coming up here from the lower 48, consider yourself warned and don’t guzzle the brewskis so fast, eh?

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