The Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past

What if you were truly haunted by the ghost of Christmas past?

Sometimes I think I might be.

That First Christmas

We spent our first Christmas as a married couple in a fairy tale setting. It was crisp and cold that year in Vienna, Austria. We strolled through the market in front of the Rathaus. Recalling my love of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, I fell in love with the nutcrackers of every shape and size.

Christmas past in Vienna

Jumping into the local culture with the appetites of youth, we sampled gluhwein (hot spiced whte wine), ate wurst larded with cheese from sidewalk stands, and  found a charming pub-style restaurant at the end of the tram line that specialized in groestl, a hash made with potatoes and ham. When we had enough local food we visited the 2-story McDonald’s.

The trip was an introduction to eiderdown comforters. We snuggled in a double bed slightly larger than a twin, and watched German television piped in from Bonn. For some reason old American sci-fi movies dubbed in German were popular. The 50’s flicks were campy, with specific effects depending on aluminum foil and string. The spacecraft looked like flying yams.

The commercials were the best part, especially the English language ad touting Spandau Ballet, “the band that styled the 80’s.” We recognized the song “True,” which had gotten decent air time in the US, but fell over ourselves with laughter at the tag line. Even today, one of us will suddenly come out with it, and for some reason it is still as funny as it was then. I mean, come on.

The Band That Styled the 80’s.

You had to have been there, I think.

End of an Era

While we were in Vienna, the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to a gruesome end in neighboring Romania. He was the last Communist leader in Eastern Europe to fall. I saved the edition of the International Herald Tribune with the story of the Christmas day execution of  Ceaușescu and his wife. You can read this Huffington Post article about it.

Suddenly, there was another tear in the Iron Curtain. Romanians came flooding across the border into Vienna, stuffed into tiny cars or by the busload to see what the free world looked like. They were slightly shell-shocked in their drab, poorly made clothes, as they took in Vienna’s magnificent architecture, restaurants, and pastry shops loaded with food. They gawked at the markets loaded with high quality Christmas decorations.Trams of Christmas past

A McDonald’s Moment

The McDonald’s was a magnet for the Romanians, although they couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were in the restaurant at one point, eating our way through a sizeable meal. A Romanian couple sat nearby, sharing a single Happy Meal. They ate slowly and with great wonder.

Related post: What I Learned at McDonald’s and it isn’t about the food

That meal was a gift in many ways. It made me realize the joy there is in freedom and to never take it for granted. I recognized how lucky I was to be able to watch the awakening of a nation, yet not have to carry the burden of the past or the fear of change.

Ghost of Christmas Past

That couple in the McDonald’s in Vienna is my ghost. But in a good way. Rarely does a year go by that I don’t think of them. They were about our age, amazed at what the world outside Romania was like.

I hope things worked out for them and that they are prosperous now. Maybe getting ready to enjoy Christmas, laughing about how naive they were that first time out of Romania. Thinking about the American couple they saw in McDonald’s and how they looked like freedom.

Entitlement, Mexico style

Entitlement, Mexico style

Over the last few weeks I’ve been following the news stories about the fate of 43 students who went missing in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in a small town not far from Acapulco, in late September. The students, from a rural teaching college, were mostly men in their 20’s who went to protest in the town of Iguala about the lack of funding for their school.

After the protest got rough, they were arrested by the police but reportedly handed over to a gang. Justice, Mexico style. They haven’t been seen or heard of since.

Zocalo, Mexico City

Demonstrators in Mexico City’s Zocalo. Photo courtesy of Reuters via

Demonstrations demanding answers have been held in Acapulco and Mexico City, with a spiraling anger that has led to numerous arrests.

riot police, mexico City

Riot police protect National Palace adjacent to Mexico City’s Zocalo. Photo courtesy of Reuters via

Related post: March for the Missing in Acapulco

The mayor, no less

Now the mayor of the town of Iguala and his wife have been arrested for ordering the execution of the students because the student demonstration disrupted a social event for the municipal royal couple. The mayor and his wife were found hiding out in Mexico City. The Iguala chief of police who is also charged, is still a fugitive.

Here is a comprehensive CNN report:

Remains of the day

Federal authorities searching for bodies of the missing 43 stumbled upon a number of mass graves in the hills around Acapulco but none were of the tudents. Did I read that correctly, you are saying to yourself; “Numerous mass graves???”

So if the dead in those graves aren’t the students, then who is buried there in these lonely, unmarked plots? And why should a culturally rich country, with world famous food and a spot on Monocle’s soft power annual survey, have mass unmarked graves dotting its countryside?

But the good news is that, according to the most recent CNN news reports, partial remains have been found that are likely to be the students. They were shot, then burned, then the remains dumped in a river.

This is hurting my heart.

Mexico style

The latest Emilia Cruz mystery has elements of this sort of entitlement, as does THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which I saw all too often when I lived in Mexico. It’s an attitude of Mexico style entitlement that says “I can wipe out those bothering fools because they aren’t real people.” It is a sense of respecting no one but yourself, of having lost touch with basic humanity and being consumed by one’s own ego.

Cartels and corruption have taken it to stratospheric levels in Mexico. I’m not sure I have ever experienced that type of attitude to such an extent anywhere else.

Why Acapulco is an Unforgettable Setting for a Mystery Series

Why Acapulco is an Unforgettable Setting for a Mystery Series

Spenser has all of Boston to roam through, solving mysteries with Hawk at his side and meeting Susan later for dinner at Locke-Ober. Wallander has Sweden’s fog and gloom to wander, his melancholy matching the mist.  Arkady Renko contends with Moscow; taking us through the city’s shift from unsmiling Communist monolith to mafia-run knife-in-the-back dark streets. Guido Brunetti walks Venice’s rivas, his trusty ispettore in tow, a gourmet Italian meal awaiting him at home.

Detective Emilia Cruz has iconic Acapulco as her playground and the series makes use of its highs and lows. The city has grown increasingly violent in recent years as drug cartels battle over lucrative drug shipping routes into the US. But the city’s beauty and culture remain intact; the famous cliff divers still stun tourists, the dolphins still splash in the water park. But most of all, the sunsets, beaches, and blue ocean are among the best in the world. Not to mention the wonderful seafood.

With all that to work with, it is no surprise that the mystery series has been optioned for film. Acapulco makes a stunning backdrop for a mystery series. There is heat in Acapulco to be sure, but there’s also the warmth of Mexico.

Here is how the some of the most iconic settings feature in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

800px-FlowerStallJamaicaMarketDFMexico’s markets

Markets in Mexico are some of my favorite places. They brim with colors, smells, and textures that can’t help but awaken your creativity:

There was more than one entrance into the market and she’d ended up by the food section. Vendors showcased their offerings by stringing up scrawny red carcasses that could be cats or jackrabbits or odd cuts of beef between the uprights of the booths. A bloody board invariably waited for the vendor to chop off as much meat as the customer could afford. The rest of the carcass would be put back on display and some unlucky late shopper would be left with just the head or feet.

Emilia stifled a retch as she plowed through, often having to turn sideways to pass through the narrow aisles full of dawdling shoppers and aggressive vendors. The meat section gave way to the fruit and vegetable stalls where the attar of rotting fruit was as cloying as the butcher smells.

She kept going, turning into a section devoted to containers: woven palm baskets, plastic tubs and buckets, melamine bowls and cups. In the aisle, two old ladies argued over plastic tumblers decorated with cat cartoons and Emilia had to practically shout “Permiso!” before they let her get by. The baby section was next, booths full of disposable diapers in clear plastic-wrapped bundles of 10 or 20 stacked next to cans of baby formula, cloth bibs, and boxes filled with assorted jars of baby food.

Dogs and cats in cages dominated the next aisle, along with bags of dry pet food. Emilia passed flowers and a shoe repair stand, a few men selling picture frames, and then she was in an aisle with candles on both sides, pillars of wax decorated with pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, San Juan Diego, and San Miguel el Arcángel. There were plain wax candles besides the religious ones, candles that smelled like apples or melon, candles that had strings and plastic coins wrapped around them to bring luck and wealth.

A turn down the next aisle and Emilia was in junk heaven. The booths were larger, each a second-hand store. Many had garish signs advertising their wares. A pig advertised Everything For The Home, while a pirate pointed to Hidden Treasures. The best sign incorporated a half-naked hula girl whose grass shirt spelled out Chatarra. Junk.


Acapulco skylineBeaches

For most of us, Mexico conjurs up a great all-includive resort, with endless margeritas, scuba excursions, and a romance that we might not otherwise have had:

He kicked off his shoes and waited for Emilia to do the same. Together they stepped off the lower terrace and onto the hard-packed sand. They walked across the beach to the water’s edge and Kurt turned right to keep them parallel to the softly lapping surf. The sun was nearly below the horizon, just the rim of a fiery orange ball visible as it sank into the dark ocean, the kaleidoscope reduced to flickering stripes woven through the water.

They kept walking, holding hands, leaving the hotel further and further behind. Emilia let her sandals dangle from her free hand, trying not to think about Belize or the future or how the sunset reminded her of smoke and fire. 

The hotel’s lights and music receded; the sand became more coarse and the ocean more angry and violent. The waves surged onto the beach and sucked at the sand, reaching higher each time, thirsty for something hidden underneath and angry when dragged away before the treasure was found.

Kurt slowed his steps, then stopped. Emilia looked behind them. In the distance, the hotel glittered down the whole length of the cliff. She could see the curve of the bay and the hotel’s private marina. Lights hung in the sky, and she knew it was the even more distant Costa Esmeralda apartment building. The dark night had swallowed up cement and stone, and only the lights were left to compete with the stars.


Acapulco cliff diverPacific cliffs

Mexico’s Pacific coast is Acapulco’s dramatic backdrop. The city’s 50’s Hollywood glamour has faded but the cliffs and the bay still make for the most fantastic views anywhere: 

It was at least a dozen miles to Punta Diamante, the picturesque spit of land where the rich and famous played. Along the way, la Costera became the coastal highway called the Carretera Escénica, winding high up the side of the mountain that guarded the most scenic bay in the world. It was a ribbon of tarmac carved from the face of the cliff, lanes without guardrails or a safety net. Far below, on Rucker’s side, the bay twinkled and shimmered under the night sky. A few cars passed heading toward Acapulco but for the most part they were alone on the road with nothing to spoil the dramatic scene of mountain curves and glittering ocean . . .

The headlights in her mirror zoomed in. As the Suburban passed the deserted privada gate a salvo of gunfire tore the night and something hit the back end with a dull thud. The heavy vehicle shuddered and slewed to the right.

Emilia broke out into a cold sweat as she fought the wheel, trying to keep the vehicle on the high mountain road. The tires on the right side lost traction along the cliff edge. Time stopped for a day and a year before the lethargic vehicle responded and rumbled toward the center of the road and then the rear window exploded, spraying shattered glass inward. Emilia and Rucker both instinctively ducked as shards rained down. Somehow Emilia kept the accelerator pressed to the floor.

The Suburban lurched around a slight bend. The glare in her rearview was refracted for a moment and Emilia clearly saw the vehicle behind them. It was a small pickup, with at least four men braced in the bed. They all carried long guns.

“They’ll take us out here,” Rucker said. “There’s nowhere to hide and we can’t outrun them.”

“I know.”

“Brake and turn it.”

“Madre de Dios.” Before she gave herself time to think, Emilia hit the parking brake and swung the wheel to the left.

The small truck shot by as the Suburban screamed into the oncoming lane, tires chewing the tarmac, engine protesting. The mountainside loomed out of the inky darkness so fast Emilia felt the vehicle start to claw its way upwards. But momentum and gravity won out and the vehicle continued to spin.

The landscape was lost in a dizzying blur. Like a hand racing too fast around a clock face, they were pointed toward Acapulco in the right lane, then at the center of the road, then at the other lane, then straight at the cliff edge. Far below, white lines of waves rolled gently toward the sand, hypnotic and teasing.


March for the Missing in Acapulco

March for the Missing in Acapulco

The road has disappeared under a wave of sorrow and anger. In a case of weather mimicking emotions, it is raining and thousands are unintentionally decorated with multicolored umbrellas. The raingear doesn’t hide the posters with faces of the missing. Rather, the umbrellas become a symbol of the lengths to which people will go to get answers.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Rally for answers

I wish the scene was one out of the Emilia Cruz mystery series. Indeed, in MADE IN ACAPULCO, a rally takes place in the exact same place to raise awareness of the plight of those missing in Mexico’s drug war and Emilia must confront her own failure as a cop to stem the tide.

But the rally I’m talking about here is real and took place last week in Acapulco. Thousands turned out for a peaceful protest in the rain that shut down Acapulco’s main boulevard, the Costura Miguel Aleman, in an effort to get answers as to the fate of 43 teaching college students who were taken away by local police in the nearby town of Iguala.

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

On 26 September 2014, sparked by a protest over supposed bias against teachers from rural areas, the now-missing students clashed with police and masked men. Reuters reports that “Authorities say many of the missing students were abducted by police.”

Authorities have been using sniffer dogs, patrols on horseback and have been sifting lakes in the state of Guerrero, where Iguala and Acapulco are located, to determine the wherabouts of the students. According to the online edition of The Guardian newspaper, 19 mass graves have been found and 28 bodies so far exhumed. None of the bodies so far found have been matched to any of the missing students.

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

An arrest

According to ABC News, “Mexican officials announced the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, the purported leader of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang suspected of acting with local police in taking away the students. He was detained Thursday on a highway leaving Mexico City, federal prosecutor Tomas Zeron said.

“Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said he hoped the arrest will bring new leads in the case.

“The government is combing the hills of southern Guerrero state with horseback patrols and has divers looking in lakes and reservoirs behind dams, but has not found the youths missing since a confrontation with police Sept. 26 in the city of Iguala. Officers are suspected of turning the students over to the gang.

“Authorities have arrested 36 police officers along with 17 alleged members of the gang. Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, are being sought for their presumed involvement in the disappearances, Murillo Karam said.”

Related post: Author Dilemma: When the News Writes Mystery for You

Endless road?

The end of this story is still ahead of us, but the circumstances that sparked it–police corruption, drug cartel influence, the endless money to be made from the drug and violence business–have no end in sight. The Emilia Cruz mystery series is fiction, but also a way of making folks aware of what is going on in Mexico.

Related post: Be Angry and Pray Hard

As the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, Emilia Cruz walks a fine line between the corrupt and the dead of her department. Her personal crusade to find out what happened to women who have gone missing in Acapulco is less fiction, however, than it is fact.

2016 Update

The 43 missing students have never been found, although the remains of 1 has been identified. I have decided to use this case as inspiration for a Detective Emilia Cruz novel. The working title is 43 MISSING.

3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Are you travelling to Mexico but getting nervous when you read the headlines?

Yes, there are security issues in Mexico, many of which I write about in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, but more than likely you aren’t planning to travel to the real hotspots. Rest assured, safe travel in Mexico is possible. Mexico is a beautiful, intriguing, and expansive country with a rich culture to  enjoy. With dozens of fantastic destinations, from beach resorts to art hubs to big city museums, it is virtually impossible to be bored there.

The trick to enjoying Mexico is to be prepared with good security habits. As a mystery novel author whose main character is Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz, I spend a lot of time immersed in these security issues and know that a little common sense can go a long way.

Check out three tips for avoiding problems and having a great time in Mexico.

1. Passport to Paradise

Protect your passport; it’s your most valuable commodity. Don’t take it to the beach or the market. Keep a copy of the photo page of your passport with you. The original can stay in a room safe (along with copies of credit cards and contact numbers for the issuing companies.) Along with the copy of your passport, keep handy the phone number and business hours of your embassy in Mexico and the phone number and address of your hotel.

Related post: From Beach to Book: 3 Favorite Hotels in Mexico

2. No New Conversations

Getting into and out of a vehicle can be a particularly vulnerable time. A parking area is full of hiding places for would-be thieves and it is very easy to be distracted from your surroundings by the process of loading and unloading people, packages, strollers, etc. When we lived in Mexico our family rule was no new conversations getting in or out of the car. This meant fewer distractions for parents, faster loading/unloading, and zero scary incidents.

3. Expect the Unexpected

Once upon a time I was a student in Paris and travelling through Italy during Christmas break. While on a local train somewhere near Brindisi a group of boys got on shouting and throwing firecrackers, disorienting everybody in the carriage. The boys swarmed over our luggage, kept up the ruckus for the 10 minutes it took to get to the next town, and left, having taken everything out of my friend’s unattended purse.

Be prepared to encounter similar disruptions in Mexico. Getting accidentally squirted with water/mustard/liquid soap while strolling a market, being accosted by kids trying to give or sell you something, and other unexpected encounters can be a prelude to being pickpocketed or getting a purse stolen by those making the disruption or their accomplices.

Reduce your risk by being alert, not wearing ostentatious jewelry in obvious tourist areas, and keeping your bag closed, preferably with a zipper. Consider trading a backpack (worn on your back where you can’t see if someone is opening a pocket) for a messenger bag.

Related post: How to Find Love in Mexico City’s Markets

Was this helpful? Do you have a story about safe travel in Mexico?

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

Planning a trip to Mexico? Wondering where to stay?

Readers often ask if the Palacio Réal, the hotel in Acapulco that Kurt Rucker manages in the Emilia Cruz mystery novels, is real. The answer is well, sort of.sunglasses isolated on white

The luxurious Palacio Réal  is a composite of my three favorite hotels in Mexico.  Yes, I have stayed at all three and combined the best of each into the hotel in the books. This way, I get to re-enjoy my visits to each place with authentic descriptions each time the action in the books shifts to the hotel.

If you are planning a trip to Mexico, these hotels are worth checking out!

Related: 3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Hacienda Los Laureles, Oaxaca

We stayed in this hotel several years ago when it was newly opened. It is an old Spanish hacienda two miles outside of Oaxaca proper, in a neighborhood called San Felipe del Aqua, that has been renovated with a sense of architectural history so none of the charm has been lost. The owners did everything they could to ensure we had a wonderful stay and fussed over our children with free desserts and appetizers. My daughter still recalls being called “la princesa” for a week.

After hard touristing at Monte Elban and other Oaxaca sites of wonder we’d spend late afternoons on the patio having bittersweet hot cocoa and soaking up the ambiance. We came loaded with restaurant recommendations for places in town but often ended up dining at the hotel. The food was amazing and the service warm and genuine.

Since that stay, the hotel has consolidated its reputation as the only 5-star AAA lodging in the Oaxaca area. It is a small gem off the beaten path.

Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel and Towers, Mexico City

This hotel has so much to commend it. The first thing is a central location near the El Angel monument, the Colonia Cuauhtémoc business district, the US embassy, and the western edge of the Zona Rosa. The second is the shops on the ground floor including a good restaurant with reasonably priced food, a newsstand and souvenir shop, a clothing boutique, the first Starbucks in Mexico City, and a jewelry shop where I got a box covered in silver milagros charms. You can walk to a Sanborns department store for books and magazines. The hotel is a good base to explore the Zone Rosa district, including the Insurgentes market, across the wide Paseo de la Reforma (cross at the crosswalks only!!)

The third thing to commend this hotel is that the rooms are large, clean and everything you’d expect for an upscale hotel in a big city. The executive floors are worth the small extra amount, given that they come with butler service, a fantastic breakfast buffet in the executive lounge (you can watch the news in either English or Spanish depending where you sit) and an evening cocktail hour in the same place. You can get a reliable taxi out front. A much-vaunted St. Regis opened up a few blocks away but the Sheraton, in my view, is a much better location and value.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Camino Réal, Acapulco

If the fictional Palacio Réal reminds readers of any specific hotel, it is probably the Camino Réal. This luxe hotel is located on the eastern side of Acapulco bay, in an area called Puerto Marqués, not too far from the better-known Las Brisas resort. We stayed there twice, enjoying the secluded location, huge rooms, and terrific food. The hotel is a multi-level marvel built against the cliffside that its website describes as an architectural “cascade.” The way it is built allows for pools on multiple levels, excellent views, and a lot of quiet corners so it is easy to spend a lot of time there without running into many other guests.

Eating there is half the fun. Room service was wheeled in on a large round table draped with a floor-length tablecloth while the flagship restaurant cantilevered over the water made dinner a special occasion.

The out-of-the-way location keeps you out of the thick of the tourist activity in Acapulco, but the hotel has its own tour office and we were able to set up tours right there. Downtown Acapulco can feel similar to any busy beachfront town—albeit with better views—so staying at this hotel lets you have the experience that Acapulco was meant to be—a majestic sweep of ocean and the amenities to enjoy it.

Thinking of taking a break and heading someplace warm? My friend Dana at is extremely convincing with 8 Reasons Why Travelling is Good for You.  

Padre Pro, the Catholic Martyr Who Inspired a Mystery

Padre Pro, the Catholic Martyr Who Inspired a Mystery

The long road that has become DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3th Emilia Cruz mystery novel, started nearly 4 years ago, in Rome, Italy. I’d had my tour of the Vatican and was now on the hunt for gifts and souvenirs. A large Catholic gift and bookstore looked promising.

Mex_bookHistoric Surprise

On the second floor I found a small paperback entitled MEXICAN MARTYRDOM by Wilfred Parsons, S.J. The author name’s name was buried in the text on the back cover which told of “true stories of the persecutions” and the “atrocities of those times” and the “heroic resistance of Mexican Catholics” in the 1920’s.

I was astounded. I’d lived in Mexico for 3 years, gone to church on a regular basis, even been president of the parish council. It was certainly a more devout country than the US, with no hint of anti-Catholicism. Perhaps I should have been aware about this period in history during a tour of Oaxaca, when the guide had referred to government seizure of the former convent were were touring, but I was too agog with the loveliness of Oaxaca to give it further thought. But in the late 1920’s the Mexican government of President Plutarco Calles tried to outlaw the Catholic Church, provoking what became known as the Cristero War.

Padre Pro

portrait of Cristero martyr Padre Pro

A rare photo of Padre Pro in a cassock in Mexico (vestments were against the law) from

From MEXICAN MARTYRDOM I learned the the story of Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J., a Jesuit priest executed for practicing his faith in 1927. Padre Pro, as he was called, was born in Mexico, ordained in Belgium, and returned to Mexico at the height of the crackdown on the Church. Wearing disguises, he walked, bicycled, and took taxis to dispense the sacraments and assist the poor–often by finding homes for unwanted babies and distributing food to those displaced by the government’s crackdown and mishandling of the economy. His legend grew large as the priest the army couldn’t catch but he was finally snared when he was accused of an plot to kill the head of the army (later president) and ratted out, along with 2 of his brothers. No one ever produced any evidence that the Pro brothers were involved in the plot.

Padre Pro and his brother Humberto were executed by firing squad. To make an example of him, the government took plenty of pictures during the event. But it backfired. Padre Pro blessed the head of the firing squad, forgave him, then flung out his arms, holding a cross in one hand and a rosary in the other, and shouted Viva Cristo Rey, just before the bullets struck. His words became the rallying cry for the Cristero War, which was captured in the movie “For Greater Glory.” Padre Pro was beatified by the Vatican in 1988 (first step on the road to sainthood).

Although the Emilia Cruz series is set in today’s Acapulco, I wanted to draw on Padre Pro’s life story for a novel. When things can get rough for Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz  in both CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE she turns to her parish priest Padre Ricardo for advice and solace. In DIABLO NIGHTS, she’ll find a relic supposedly from Padre Pro that gives her hope and the courage to keep moving forward. She needs her faith to survive Mexico’s drug war violence, but she also needs the relic as a means to ease her conscience, because  . . .

No spoilers today, but DIABLO NIGHTS is shaping up to be the most psychologically suspenseful Emilia Cruz mystery yet.

In Padre Pro’s Own Words

Padre Pro was a man of many talents. He played the guitar, sang, wrote stories and poetry, and was a great comedic actor (which enabled him to assume many disguises and improvise his way out of numerous close shaves with the Mexican authorities before he was finally caught.) A poem included in the biography BLESSED MIGUEL PRO by Ann Ball has a haunting stanza that I received permission to use as the opening quote in DIABLO NIGHTS:

The very breath of Hell floats in the air;

The cup of crime is filled by tyrant’s hand

“Return in Haste, O Lord” by Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J.

El Chapo, Soft Power, and Dirty Faces

El Chapo, Soft Power, and Dirty Faces

When I heard that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, notorious head of the Sinaloa Cartel had been arrested, two things came to mind: Monocle, the British magazine about all things cultural, and a great old James Cagney movie.

Wait. This will make sense.

Soft Power Fiesta

Monocle2Monocle, which describes itself as “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design,” is a glorious monthly catalog of worldwide innovation. Every year the magazine publishes its ”Soft Power Survey.” It’s a ranking of the top 30 countries able to exert influence through attraction rather than coercion.

Mexico made it to the list for the first time in 2013 when Monocle gushed about the influence of Mexican food. Mexico rose higher in the rankings to number 24 this year (December 13/January 14 edition) but the entry carried this caveat: “But we all know the problem—Mexico will have won when there are more news stories about its culture and less about drug crime.”

As I read the reporting about extradition possibilities and and who will take over the Sinaloa Cartel, maybe this time El Chapo will fade from view for good. Without the specter of El Chapo, Mexico’s soft power should continue to rise. And it’s about time.

James Cagney as Role Model

It’s a little late in El Chapo’s career to be recommending role models, but at this juncture I’d suggest the late great Hollywood actor James Cagney.

Wait. This will make sense.

cagneyIn the 1938 gangster movie, “Angels With Dirty Faces,” James Cagney and Pat O’Brien are childhood friends who go separate ways. Cagney becomes a famous gangster who is looked up to by street kids. O’Brien becomes a priest who wants to set those kids on the right path. Crime doesn’t pay, Cagney is sentenced to the electric chair and the execution is to be broadcast on the radio. Knowing that the kids will be listening, O’Brien implores Cagney to “turn yellow” at the end so the kids will stop idolizing him. Cagney refuses, but at the very last puts on the act and goes out bawling like a baby. Of course, it has the desired effect on the kids clustered around the Philco and O’Brien knows Cagney did it for him.

Would it have an impact if El Chapo appeared to be a coward in captivity? Would it reduce his status as an idol for so many who seek the narco lifestyle?

Not that I think he’s going to do a Cagney any time soon. Cagney had class.

Grace Before Meals

So I’m taking a line through Pat O’Brien’s character (who played a priest in so many movies I thought he was one) and saying a little prayer that El Chapo fades from the scene and Mexican food propels the country upwards on the soft power charts.

Finding the Missing in Mexico: New Effort or Whitewash?

flg printIn HAT DANCE, the latest Emilia Cruz novel due out later this summer, Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz is on the hunt of a missing local girl. The plot line is straight from the headlines coming out of Mexico. These headlines have reported—but struggled to actually document—the high numbers of the missing in Mexico as a result of the country’s drug war.

During the last years of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s administration most commentators were saying at least 60,000 were missing due to drug violence over the past six years. Most of the news about Mexico focused on drug violence.

Related post: Lost in Mexico Has Nothing to do With Translation

But the administration of new president Enrique Peña Nieto is trying to create a different narrative, it seems to me, one that highlights Mexico’s emerging economic power, focuses on the country’s rich cultural offerings, and emphasizes reform and stability rather than cartel arrests.

In an interview in the May edition of my favorite magazine, Monocle, President Peña Nieto—or EPN as pundits call him—discussed drug violence and Mexico’s disappeared by saying he was focusing on “the root causes [of violence which are] inequality, poverty and the absence of opportunities for the population.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written before about how Mexico’s unequal social system keeps people from being able to move up in society and encourages youth to look to the drug cartel lifestyle as a way to obtain the goods and respect that they cannot get in Mexico’s formal economy. I think EPN and his team have been fairly successful so far in getting attention away from drug violence and on to economic and cultural issues. Heck, when Thomas L. Friedman writes glowingly about your economic prospects, you know the message is getting out.

But what about the missing and the continuing unacceptable levels of violence? In late May the new Interior Secretary reported that a new review suggested that there aren’t as many as everybody thought and that drug violence-related deaths have dropped significantly since December 2012 (when EPN was inaugurated). Non drug violence-related deaths are up, however, leading some to wonder if this is a convenient whitewash.

Not to worry. Shortly after announcing that there might not be as many disappeared as thought for years—and after families of the missing camped out in front of his office continued a hunger strike–EPN’s attorney general formed a federal missing persons unit. The unit will include 12 federal investigators and a unit of the federal police.

As things stand now, many families conduct their own investigations to find out what happened to missing family members. The cost to find missing family members is high, however, both in terms of danger and monetary costs. Local authorities are either fearful of cartel reprisals or simply too overworked to vigorously pursue cases. A notable exception is Nuevo León. It is “one of the only states where you see prosecutors actually doing the due diligence of conducting investigations, meeting with families, going to the crime scene, taking common-sense steps to advance the investigation,” according to Nik Steinberg, an investigator with Human Rights Watch.

As a mystery author one of the things I do best is to ask questions:

1. How successful can EPN’s new unit be? The federal police have been implicated in many disappearances, according to a report released in February by the Human Rights Watch. “President Peña Nieto has inherited one of the worst crises on disappearances that have occurred in Latin America throughout history,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of the international watchdog organization. The report details numerous cases directly tied to Mexico’s military and law enforcement agencies.

As long as the unit stays clean, they’ve got a chance to restore faith in government institutions. But their numbers are a drop in the bucket when it comes to the manpower needed to tackle the problem.

Hat Dance book cover2. If there aren’t as many disappeared as initially thought and drug related violent deaths are on the wane, is this unit just lip service? Given the continuing drumbeat of headlines such as: Cancun Drug Murders: 6 Strangled, 1 Decapitated In Mexico Resort Town and No Clues Yet in Case of Mexico City’s Missing 11, I’m wondering if the new statistics won’t be quietly revised upward at some point. Keep in mind that these are headlines from a US national level news outlet–how much more of Mexico’s news stays local?

It remains to be seen if this new unit will help local investigations that are closest to the locus of crimes and could be much more effective. Local authorities need to be both honest and protected so they can pursue investigations.

As long as this new unit honestly and vigorously pursues the cases of the disappeared I’ll keep the faith. Meanwhile, Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz will keep looking for the women she calls las perdidas.–the lost ones.

Related post: The Girl on the Cutting Room Floor

Finally, may all those who seek the missing in Mexico find what they seek. While they may not find their loved ones, I pray they find answers. And peace.

The Art of Travel Without a Camera

The Art of Travel Without a Camera

The art of travel is being able to create memories. But how can we relive the experiences and relationships of an exciting or romantic or never-again adventure? Think outside the camera–the right postcard can be more of a memory-maker than all those digital photos that never leave the device.

Travel + Postcards

When I was younger and couldn’t afford to take alot of pictures I found myself traveling through Europe on a student budget. It was the era of 35mm cameras  and the cost to develop pictures was out of my reach. I began buying postcards instead, not to mail, but to keep as souvenirs.

The postcards were easy to share and display. The collection grew. I often rifle through the cards and they never fail to do what a good souvenir does–bring back memories.

Related post: The Kitchen UN

Buying Tips

People have asked about my postcard purchases and so without further ado, the three most important tips for collecting the art of travel:

  1. Only buy a postcard from a place you’ve actually been. It’s tempting to buy a beautiful scene or a painting and heck, it’s only a dollar, right? But when you get home you won’t have any association with it. So don’t bother. Stay authentic to your experience.
  2. Go beyond the ordinary color photo postcard and go with a theme. Collect map postcards. Drawings. Vintage scenes. Hunting a postcard that corresponds to the theme of your collection can liven up a trip.
  3. Look for postcards in quirky places. Museums and souvenir shops are the expected places but churches, antique malls, university bookstores, and art galleries are also good places to check, especially if you collect a theme.

The Gallery

To get your imagination going, here are some of mine and the stories they tell:

manuscript page

A British Library postcard of a page of Lewis Carroll’s handwritten and illustrated manuscript of Alice in Wonderland.  This was my first trip to London as an adult, when I went to the British Library and Sir John Soanes’ Museum and was a hopeless Anglophile for a week.


This postcard of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises was purchased during a student trip to Amsterdam. My roommate and I rode the train from Paris and met up with a motley group of foreign students with whom we went to the Van Gogh Museum. This painting, with its thickly daubed paint and eye-popping colors fascinated me. I could have stared at it all day.

Related post: Girl Meets Paris

Amsterdam postcardThis postcard is a double art bonus: it shows both sides of the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam but also reflects the colors and layout of the flag of the Netherlands.

German village

This postcard of the medieval walled village of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany will always bring forth the memory of a trip through Germany and Austria with my mother. Rothenburg was the scene of a particularly funny beer drinking event during which my mother did herself proud at 11:00 am.

1940s postcard

The Ritz Hotel has been mentioned in many books and always seemed the epitome of high society. I crossed it off my bucket list several years ago when I had brunch there (coffee and toast that cost as much as my first car) and picked up this postcard from the lounge on my way out.

postcard of WWII

Australian artist Colin Colahan painted “Ballet of Wind and Rain” in 1945 as an official artist with Australian forces in the UK during WWII. I purchased the postcard at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, one of the most moving tributes to fallen soldiers I’ve ever seen.

Face of Virgin of Guadalupe

This is a photo of image of the Madonna imprinted on a cloth garment (the famous tilma of San Juan Diego) which now hangs in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  I got it at the  Basilica gift shop. The postcard is simply a photo with “Expression de los ojos de la Virgen” stamped on the back and space for postage and the recipient’s address.

Scrapbook Diaries-postcards 001

This is an oversized postcard for an oversized item, namely the Viking ship or “Oseberg-stavnen” in the Viking ship museum in Oslo, Norway. On the same trip I went to the Fram Museum, the final home of the ship that took Roald Amundsen to Antarctica. I doubt the Viking tradition will ever die out in Norway.

Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

In mid-February, prompted by a spate of news reports on crime for 2012–including a list of the top 10 most violent cities in the world, discussions of violence in Chicago and Detroit, and school closings in Acapulco due to security problems–I posted this picture and the following question on my Facebook fan page:

Acapulco nightAcapulco, setting for my EMILIA CRUZ mystery series, has been named the 2nd most DANGEROUS city in the world! Have you been to Acapulco? Do you agree?

The Facebook Response

At present I have 1898 Facebook fans, spread across 7 countries. More than half are in Mexico. 291 fans “liked” the post. Responses included:

  • “Beautiful paradise turned into hell.. where teachers are being extorted . . taxi drivers are decapitated, where many women have been raped, but only when happened [sic] to foreigners the authorities reacted as if the lives of poor, common Guerrero women were worthless.”
  • “Acapulco is violent and dangerous yes, indeed!”
  • “I think people over [exaggerate] things ‘cause look what happened to those kids in school. It’s always dangerous people make it that way in Mexico everywhere not just Acapulco.” (translation)
  • “I love the photo. Just . . . Perhaps . . . this is now the motherland of Mexicans. And you have to love her as such. First, individuals must be better in order to first form a society.” (translation)
  • “The whole world has violence not only Acapulco.”

Related post: Chain of Fools

Comparing Crime

The “it’s not just Acapulco” comments made me wonder. Were Acapulco’s homicide numbers really so much worse than Chicago or Detroit? Moving further north, what about Canada? What does high crime there look like? I had more questions than ever after that simple Facebook post.

Here is what I found when I compared the homicide rates in key cities in North America:

                           Winnipeg       Chicago         Detroit          Acapulco

Population:           700,000           2,851,265         700,000          880,000

2012 homicides              39                 500                 411                 1170

Percentage        1 in 17,948           1 in 5,702        1 in 1,703         1 in 752

I was looking for context and what I got was a shocker. Unless math has changed since I went to school, Acapulco is far and away the winner of this gruesome challenge. Winnipeg has the worst homicide rate of all Canadian cities but is incredibly low in comparison.

Are Local Gangs the Key?

What will it take to make a dangerous city less violent? Gangs fuel the homicide rates in Chicago and Detroit, according to many news reports, and it is well known that Acapulco’s gangs feed drug cartel violence. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced a new $9 billion crime prevention strategy to combat the rise of gangs in 57 poor neighborhoods and hotspots including Acapulco. Will it work? While homicide rates never tell the whole story, let’s hope next year the numbers are smaller.

About the time I went to Fiji

About the time I went to Fiji

Arriving in Fiji alone at 1:00 am after a 12-hour flight was unnerving but that’s the way the flights went so there I was, in the middle of the Pacific, with a heavy suitcase, an even heavier bag of scuba gear, and reservations for a hotel that was 20 miles away. I’d never been in Fiji before.

The Fiji You Don’t Know

A nation of islands, Fiji was a former British colony. When the Brits found out that it was the ideal climate for sugar cane, Indian workers from the subcontinent were brought in the raise the crop. Sugar cane passport and shellsbecame Fiji’s main export, sweetening British candy and giving rise to local rum production as well. But land in Fiji–and accompanying political power–is reserved for native-born Fijians, disenfranchising the Indian population. As the Indian population grew to rival that of native-born Fijians, the unequal status was more apparent. The Indian population’s economic and political power grew with the population, until an Indian was elected prime minister. A racially-motivated coup by a native Fijian army officer was swift and bloodless. It returned the former native Fijian prime minister to an interim status but a second coup occurred when the army ringleader took power himself.

The second coup had occurred two weeks before my arrival.

The Taxi Driver I Didn’t Know

I was wary but determined as I hauled my heavy bags outside the terminal to be directed into a taxi driven by a turbaned Indian gentleman. We headed off in the pitch-black Pacific night for Suva, the capital. The taxi was tooling along nicely until we came to an army roadblock. A single Fijian soldier stood guard, wearing a military uniform shirt tucked into a traditional Fijian sulu, or kilt, and sandals. He had an assault rifle, a flashlight, and a long wooden barrier.

Related: Talking money in Papua New Guinea

The Soldier I Wish I Knew

Let me digress here and say that Fijian men are the most handsome men on earth. Apologies to singer Ricky Martin; Karl Urban–the New Zealander who played Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies; and my husband (whom I hadn’t yet met.) Fijian men are Pacific gods. All are about seven feet tall, muscular to the point of sculpture, and have deliciously dark hair and eyes.

So back to the car. The driver stopped the vehicle in front of the barrier. From my vantage point in the back seat I saw him sweat and shake as the soldier and his nice gun approached. The driver stared ahead, steering wheel locked in a death grip, and didn’t acknowledge the soldier.

For whatever reason I rolled down my window, smiled shakily, and held out my American passport.

The soldier bent down to peer at me through the open window. Up close he was gorgeous; dark mustache  lose-yourself-in-them brown eyes, perfect teeth. “Hello,” he said, making it sound as if I was the woman he’d been waiting for all his life.

“Hello,” I replied, now confused as well as nervous.

He stepped away from the car and studied my passport in the beam of his flashlight. There were no streetlights, no other cars, the airport far behind, the empty road unspooling in front of us only to disappear into the darkness. The taxi driver continued to shake like soupy gelatin.

The soldier came back to the car and leaned down to look at me again through the window. He handed back the passport. “Goodbye,” he said, infusing his voice with Casablanca-like drama.

“Goodbye,” I said, matching his emotional tone.

He moved the barrier, the taxi driver gave a little sob, and we sped off, leaving Sergeant Fiji by the side of the road.

Related: Open Letter to Readers about Sex

In Retrospect

I was reminded of this episode  when I recently unpacked a box of souvenirs. I’d made the first move in a tense situation by offering my passport to the soldier. He was alone in the dark and probably as nervous as that taxi driver. Would things have gone differently if I’d waited for the taxi driver to do something or for the soldier to demand some identification or payment?

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