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It's the economy, estupido!

Midterm elections slam President Calderone's party, in favor of the PRI. The army is accused of torturing drug war suspects. Americans are caught in rising violence. Six hurricanes are expected, including two big ones. Economic expectations fall yet again. Wal-Mart cashes in on swine flu. Plus, Mexican soccer gets off to a fine start.

Top News: Mexico's July 5 midterm elections were one bad blow for the party of President Felipe Calderon. His conservative National Action Party or PAN was hammered across the country.  In total, its share of the 500-seat Congress shrunk from 206 to 143 seats. Meanwhile, the big winner was the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century. The PRI more than doubled its share of Congress seats from 106 to 237, just shy of a simple majority. It also won control of states and municipalities across the nation. 


The press speculated why Mexico voted to go “back to the future,” as Time Magazine put it. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times had a simple answer – “it’s the economy estupido.” Amid a slump in exports, remittances, oil prices and tourism, Mexico’s economy has taken the worst beating since the peso crisis of 1995. Pundits also blamed insecurity as a reason for voters yearning for their more authoritarian past. 


The wave of killings and kidnappings continued to rage through Mexico. This time, the two most high profile victims were American citizens from a community of non-conformist Mormons, who live in the state of Chihuahua. Benjamin Baron, 32, had become a vocal anti-crime activist after his brother was kidnapped and released in May. It seems his preaching may have angered the local crime bosses; gunmen stormed into his home on July 7, kidnapped him and his brother-in-law, beat them and then shot them dead. Mexico angrily condemned the killings, with TV commentators demanding justice and Congress holding a minute’s silence for the victims.  


But it can be hard for Mexican government to win. Pundits condemn the administration when there is so much insecurity. But they also point a finger when it cracks down with a hard hand. A front-page story in the Washington Post on July 9 documented claims of torture against the Mexican army in their fight against drug gangs. “The Mexican army has carried out forced disappearances, acts of torture and illegal raids in pursuit of drug traffickers,” the story reported.


Similar accusations have also been filed by groups such as Human Rights Watch. 


From violent crime to violent weather, Mexico’s hurricane season kicked off, with Hurricane Andres storming over the Pacific and lashing the country’s West Coast in late June. One fisherman was killed when his boat overturned and schools were closed as people took shelter across the Pacific region.


In total, weather experts are predicting 12 named storms in 2009, six of which will become hurricanes. Two will become major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or more, the experts say.


Money: The outlook for the economy continued to look grim with Finance Minister Agustin Carstens downgrading predictions for the year’s growth yet again. He said on July 8 that there would be negative growth of about 6.2 percent this year, about the same amount the economy fell back in the peso crisis of 1995. Several analysts fear the reduction could be closer to 8 percent or the worst year since the Great Depression. Carstens, always tried to see the positive side, said that what goes down has to come up. “When the fall is deep, the rebound is faster, so I wouldn’t be surprised if growth in 2010 could even be higher,” he said. 


One firm bucking the recession was Mexico’s biggest private employer: Walmart de Mexico. The U.S.-based retailer announced an 11 percent rise in sales and a 16 percent rise in profits in its Mexico operations for the second quarter compared to the same period in 2008. The company said that improved efficiency had helped raise the profit margin; the swine flu virus was actually a bonus, with Mexicans stocking up on supermarket food amid shutdowns and restaurant closures. 


Elsewhere: Mexico’s soccer team also hopes for that kind of improvement as it plays in the Concacaf Gold Cup this month. After a poor showing for the last two years, the team has named veteran Javier Aguirre as new coach. He faces an uphill battle as Mexico’s forwards and midfielders consistently disappoint at an international level. Meanwhile, its chief regional rival — the U.S.A. — has raised its game enormously in the last decade. Still, Team Mexico had a decent start in the tournament with a 2-0 victory of Nicaragua at the opening match on July 5. It remains to be seen if they can turn that into a winning streak.


Mexico has sports bars to watch these events across the country. But if you happen to be in Puerto Vallarta, one particularly lively venue is Steve’s Sports Bar in the center of town. The drinking hole brings sports from NFL to NBA and even to niche sports such as curling.