In a country ravaged by drug violence, “good things happen in smaller cities”

Maria del Refugio Lopez credits construction of a park near her home for ending her daughter Jessica's asthma attacks. Photo Ana Arana

In 2007, I came to Mexico City as a Knight International Journalism fellow, to work as an adviser to Mexican news media on investigative journalism. Four years ago, as my fellowship ended, I stayed on to launch with Mexican and foreign editors an investigative journalism project called Fundación MEPI. The project sought to promote investigations that crossed borders and affected Mexico, the United States and Central America. From the beginning we have selected long form stories which we combine with data journalism.

In the past three years, Mexico has become more violent. Former President Felipe Calderón launched an all-out attack against drug cartels, which retaliated in return. Some of the drug organizations were dismantled but violence flourished in many cities across the country. Traveling to various Mexican states is difficult because of the security situation. Inevitably the stories we cover are linked to violence, drugs and corruption. While foreign correspondents have not been affected by the drug violence, provincial Mexican reporters have faced attacks and Mexico today ranks among ten most violent countries to work as a journalist.

When Citiscope asked for a story in Aguascalientes, it was to report on something very different from the drug violence — urban renewal. The city of Aguascalientes is a non-descript urban center of about 1.3 million people, roughly a five-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. The city is best known in Mexico for cattle ranching and hosting a yearly farm fair. I visited the city with my colleague Daniela Guazo in mid-December with the task of reporting on an urban park that had won international acclaim, and to interview the city mayor who made it happen, Lorena Martínez.

We caught up with Martínez at what appeared to be an open-air political rally in a hardscrabble neighborhood called Huertas. A group of older women and children were led to a sitting area, where another group of young men were waiting for the ceremony to begin. It looked like any other political dog-and-pony show. Martínezarrived, and a group of reporters rolled their cameras and snapped pictures. The event was to inaugurate an initiative that created an auto mechanics training school for low-income youth. A local reporter told me that the mayor was big into social welfare programs. This was to be one of her last public events as mayor.

At this point, the event seemed pretty politics-as-usual. But then when the public gathering was finished and the television cameras left, the mayor was invited to visit a community garden next door. She accepted. Martínez followed a group of mothers who made up the local community organization. As she heard about different planting techniques used in the garden, the mayor’s staff fretted that she had other more pressing events at the municipal palace. Some 30 minutes later, Mayor Martínez was ready to leave. One of the older ladies gave her a bunch of lettuce to take home for dinner.

We rode in the mayor’s car and we talked about La Línea Verde, the 12-km long urban park that is Martínez’s pet project and the focus of my story. Mayors only get one three-year term in Mexico, and Martínez had finished the massive project in a very short time. Often, politicians ask for questions ahead of time, but Martínez was open and willing to answer anything I asked. She said she saw her job as improving the luck of underprivileged populations in her city.

All it takes is one visit to La Línea Verde to see that she has succeeded. The linear park is built right through the middle of the worst urban blight in Aguascalientes. The park glistens with green lawns, modern playgrounds and running tracks. These are amenities one expects to find in plush areas of Mexico, but not in low-income neighborhoods where laborers and low-level office workers live.

The visit to Aguascalientes gave me hope for Mexico. In Mexico, as in other countries, big cities get all the attention. But as Martínez told me, almost in admonishment, many good things happen in smaller cities.


A city’s scar becomes a signature urban park

Interview with park visionary Lorena Martínez 

Photos: life of the green line

More than drug violence happens in Mexico 

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Ana Arana is an investigative journalist with extensive international experience. A former U. S. foreign correspondent, Arana was director of Fundación MEPI, an investigative journalism project in Mexico that promoted investigations that cross borders with the United States and Central America. Full bio

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