Saturday, November 18, 2006

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The Vortex of Evil... José Manuel Nava murdered

This is not a good photo of my friend José Manuel Nava, who was found stabbed to death in his Zona Rosa apartment earlier this week.

The photo appears to have been taken at some conference or another. While I knew Nava moved in the higher circles of Mexican politics and business, my contact with the "captains of industry" was in an English classroom at most. The José Manuel Nava I was acquainted with could adapt the gravitas required of Excelsior's Director when necessary, but I knew him as a good-looking, charming, witty and articulate denizem of the same Zona Rosa cafe I frequented.

It appears his charm, wit and good looks were not enough to protect him. While he knew he was an attractive man and comfortable with his age and ocial gifts -- he wasn't immune to the charms of youth. While he had little use for the street hustlers who'd come around those cafes looking for a papí, he wouldn't be the first person to make a horrible mistake, or the first to let down our guard around some charmer.

I don't know, and can't speculate. Any time a journalist is murdered, especially in Mexico, we always look at what they've written, and who might be offended. Nava had just published a book blaming the Fox administration and Presidnet Fox himself, among others , for the downfall of the cooperative that owned Excelsior from 1917 until the Nava was appointed to oversee the forced sale to private interests. No one blames him personally for overseeing that thankless task, though some bitterness and resentment still surface. Last week, in El Sol, he had obliquely criticized everyone, warning of the dangers if the left interferes with Felipe Calderón's inaguration, and if the Calderón administration does not heed the left's calls for change:

Cuando se llega a la violencia es porque la política ha sido rebasada y a pesar de las claras indicaciones que tenemos esperamos que ése no sea el caso de nuestro país.

And, there was his run-in with the C.I.A.

Back at the start of the War Against Iraq, I'd see José Manuel in the cafe, playing hooky, or taking a long Mexican lunch-hour, editing a series of articles he'd written, in which he referred to the Bush Administration as "The Vortex of Evil", into a book. He was under deadline, and under the pressure of managing a sinking newspaper, and when he was working... he was working. "Polite as a Mexican," he could let you know he was very busy, and even the charms of Banzar would not distract him.

I liked that cafe because it had outdoor seating on calle Genova and offered great people-watching opportunities. And good coffee. And Banzar the waiter. Banzar service was one of the attractions of the place. He remembered my order (being one of the few people who put cream in their coffee, it was a running joke that I'd have to send the other waiters back every time... all us gringos looked alike, I guess). An "exotic" (he's a black Ecuadorian), tall, althletic and extremely handsome -- his barista skills maybe weren't appreciated by the other foreign clientele. If Banzar understood English, he never let on... a good thing considering his opinion (and one I shared) of the creepy foreigners who hung out in that cafe, and who would invite the street hustlers to join them. Or flirt with Banzar, who would good humoredly accept their attentions... even if they never left a tip.

I understand English quite well, thank you. I was offended -- and appalled -- by those foreigners. Having told a 70-something Australian who wanted to know if I liked "that boy" (um... "no, I work in adult education" wasn't what he had in mind -- and I'm sure my lack of interests in his interests gave him some rather dull fiction to spin to his cronies, who seemed to dislike him even more than I did, though they met him every day in the same seats, and woe betide you if you took their seats. That cafe eventually went under, probably because that bunch hogged tables, yakked all day and never semed to spend much more than the price of a bottle of water. And welcomed in those street hustlers).

Gender preference is irrelevent, though I can't help speculating that being a "known associate" of those aging expats could have marked Nava as easy prey for whomever he ran into. I once was propositioned in Parque Alameda by a youngster I'd briefly met, and promptly forgot about at that cafe. An American alcoholic who at least was entertaining when he ranted about George W. Bush, whiled away the hours between his early afternoon teaching assignments and the various bars happy hours by waiting for "students" who sometimes showed up. This kid did, and wasn't understaning some point that the American didn't seem to know how to put across... as if that was the point of the exercize. It happened a Mexican teacher had showed me a way of making that particular point clear to Spanish-speakers, and I shared it with the boy. Resolving the problem, was not the point. I'm sure that kid was innocuous, but who knows about the others?

The Australian and his cronies are how I came to know José Manuel and his run-in with the C.I.A. I figured out fairly quickly that the foreigners in that cafe weren't people I really liked, or wanted to be around... but my Spanish was spotty, and I would be starved for English conversation, and so I was forced to venture out. By not taking a table with the foreigners (and in Mexico, one usually does end up sharing a table), broadened my horizons and kept my sanity (and improved my Spanish).

The jolly Cuban "double-exile" (he was a kid when his family fled to Miami in 1960, but Miami's Cuban community is a pretty unforgiving and cold place for an adult with no taste for right-wing terrorists or reactionary attitudes frozen in the 60s) was fun, but his main interst was cuisine (he ran a Cuban restaurant in Mexico City) and his fellow Cubans would drop by... making me feel like Lucy when Ricky's family showed up (Cubans are great fun, but they live and speak at 78 rpms in 33 1/3 rpm Mexico).

So, one dull afternoon, for lack of any alternative, I was talking to the Cuban, and the one creepy foreigner I could put up with for more than 15 minutes(at least his politics -- regarding the U.S. -- wasn't reactionary. About Mexico, he was a racist pig, talking about "brownies" and "whities" and insulting the "Indian noses". And he was an alcoholic, obsessed with both the street boys and the bar opening times), when I met José Manuel. Nata -- who came from a privileged backround -- was familiar enough with gringos to use the same words, but he'd never use them unless he was speaking with their regular users, and he used them ironically against the speaker, who was usually too stupid to realize he was the butt of Mexican contempt. I have no idea what party he voted for (and would never ask) but in the course of his career he'd critized the failings of all of them, and -- in what outsiders found unusual, spoke of the Revolution not as destroying the upper classes, but as a relative success for Mexicans... including the "brownies" and the ones with "Aztec noses". He was a Mexican patriot.

Nava had been a Excelsior's Washington corresponent for 18 years. His English was perfect. And so... besides meeting someone worth talking to, I found out about "Hazley Maxwell" and the C.I.A.

As a Washington expert, Nava of course had friends in the Embassy. One of his friends, who'd been assigned to Mexico City, was back living with his mother outside Washington, and José Manuel called him. He wasn't home, and Nava left a message. The mother couldn't comprehend that a former diplomatic officer in Mexico might know people with Spanish names. She wrote down "José Manuel" as "Hazley Maxwell". It was a running joke in Washington journalistic circles for years, and a few small articles in obscure publications have appeared under Hazley's by-line. José Manuel wondered if "Hazley Maxwell" was also being investigated by the C.I.A., or if his "alias" might throw off people he found more amusing than threatening.

When the "Vortex of Evil" articles first appeared, the C.I.A. Station Chief in Mexico City called Excelsior, and got as far as José Manuel's secretary, who has been around newsmen too long to suffer fools gladly. A mere C.I.A. Station Chief is no match for a tought secretary. There was no way she was going to give out any information on her boss. Even when the Ambassador called, demanding to speak to Nava, no way.

José Manuel's only reaction to the whole dust-up was typical. He admitted being flattere by the attention the U.S. Government was giving to his strugging paper, but "disappointed" when, after a lot of work by attornies in Washington, the Mexican Embassy and a Freedom of Information Act request, finally discovered the C.I.A. only considered his paper "less influential than it formerly was".

At the time, I was writing a short guidebook on Mexico City. Much of what I said about the media, I got from José Manuel. He was more than willing to share his thoughts on Mexican media, and on "Chilangolandia" in general. It surprised me that he enjoyed my crack that his paper, on slow news days "made news". The paper, then owned by the employees, has had problems since the Echiverria adminstration engineered a coup of the editorial staff. When José Manuel took control, the paper was in the middle of a bitter strike that denegrated into a brawl between the pressmen and the reporters in the paper's offices (talk about your "on the scene coverage -- Nava joked it was the first "scoop" Excelsior had enjoyed in years)and he had the delicate, impossible task of trying to keep the paper afloat, moderize it (it didn't help that one of the cafe-queens thought it was his task to tell the editor how to run the on-line edition, though he politely thanked the fellow for his suggestions and even took a few notes) and -- if all else failed -- find a buyer.

José Manuel Nava will be remembered for his good manners and willingness to deflect fools no one would suffer gladly. you could tell he was NOT HAPPY with the foreigner who insisted Mexico had to sell Pemex to American oil companies. I don't think the American knew who he was talking to -- or it would have dawned on him that the opinion of an Odessa Texas antiques broker wasn't the one shared by the Mexican intellegencia. He appreciated that I was looking at the Mexican perspective, knew something about the country, and was more than generous with his time he'd stolen away from his impossible job to relax, have coffee and watch the world.

And I appreciated him for that and will miss him.


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