CANCUN, Mexico.— “Once, we were the rulers,” he said.
“In the era of the farming masses, we didn’t fight for their bastardly interests. We weren’t guided by vanity and hatred … Now, we’re living through times devoid of civility and patriotism. We need to listen, and open our hearts so that we may live in a country where we can proudly declare ‘I am Mexican!’”
“Congressman” Ángel Jacinto Noh Tun spoke forcefully from his state’s congressional podium last Wednesday, punctuating each carefully enunciated word with his small brown hands.
The 12-year-old Mayan boy was appointed to Quintana Roo state congress for just one day, selected to represent the Mayan people of his region. The state he was born into has, in recent years, been crippled by corruption, and ransacked by corrupt politicians who have participated in the destruction of his homeland, while sitting by idly as cartels operate in the region unimpeded.
Though just one of 26 children chosen to speak in honor of Children’s Day, Jacinto delivered his fiery speech with a sincerity rarely seen from Mexico’s mealy-mouthed career politicians. It was hair-raising and memorable, to say the least.
He took his oath last Wednesday, was sworn in as a pseudo-congressman, and then—with the intonation of a well-practiced and polished politician—delivered the remarkably powerful oration, which has slowly been reverberating across the country.
“We are all astounded by the corruption, the absence of values that gives rise to the wave of violence in our state,” Jacinto said, gesticulating boldly. “How many of those present have screamed ‘Enough murders, kidnappings, violations, and theft?”
Addressing the state congress, and at times pounding his fist against the pulpit, he called Mexico’s crippling corruption “one of the great evils”—the country’s main obstacle preventing progress and growth.
In Mexico, he said, the government has “exploited [the people] with abuse of power and impunity.”
His childish voice, though nearly deafened at times by shattering applause, boomed as he called out Mexico’s corrupt political elite, railing against inequality and government inaction, the authorities’ omission and collusion with criminals, the bribes they accept, and the violence they have allowed to devastate his state—and the country at large.
It took five minutes for the sixth-grader to put politicians across Mexico to shame.
“Politicians and governors do the impossible to preserve their privileges, with disregard for the misery that the peoples of Mexico are living through,” he said from the pulpit, standing before an enormous Mexican flag. “We are no longer surprised to hear each day on the news that it is useless to fight corruption because our authorities at every level protect and cover for those who—with money and power—perform atrocities against the people.”
“I ask myself: What are our authorities doing? If one of us here would have stolen a hen to feed our families, we would have been sentenced to ten years in prison,” he said.
The video of the speech made the rounds on social media this week, but Jacinto could not have been entirely aware of how sharply his words had resonated in Mexico.
X-Cabil, his tiny indigenous community of less than 1,100 people, does not have access to telephone service, much less internet.
In fact, in his highly marginalized indigenous community where more than a quarter of the homes have dirt floors, 77 percent of the humble homes do not even have a toilet. And less than a third of those who live there are able to refrigerate their food.
Nearly 40 percent of X-Cabil’s adult residents never finished elementary school, and one in six adults never learned how to read.
Jacinto’s mother speaks only Yucatec Maya—a dialect derived from the more than 5,000-year-old proto-Mayan language spoken by the ancient people whose ruined temples dot the coast of Quintana Roo, attracting hundreds of thousands of seasonal tourists.
But Jacinto shows that he’s an astounding exception in his community. The fluidity with which he delivered his thoughtfully crafted discourse—in Spanish—is all the more impressive, given his surroundings.
The eloquent little boy explained that he wants to be both a physicist and a politician when he grows up.
But the challenges he faces are nearly unimaginable. Impoverished is an understatement.
His mother cares for his often ill siblings, and his father does what he can to provide for the family, but Jacinto, the eldest boy in a family of seven children, has clearly taken on much of the burden.
When not at school, he helps his family by going out to collect clean drinking water, and dry wood so they can cook what little food they manage to forage and grow, and so they can see at night through the dense, dark jungle once inhabited by his ancestral people.
Jacinto also helps his family take care of the bees, tend to cornfields, and farm food for their survival.
He clearly has a lot on his plate—but, unfortunately, not literally.
The ground in his community is full of stones that make the already burdensome task of growing food all the more complicated.
“I worry about my father,” Jacinto told a local news outlet. “Often his feet hurt and he cannot walk.”
With his actions, and his forceful words, he shows maturity beyond his 12 years of age.
“Crime in Quintana Roo is a slap in the face, an insult to those of us who love this land. Executions, kidnappings, rapes, and—saddest of all—the unabashed and impune theft of [missing former state Governor] Roberto Borge,” he said last Wednesday while addressing the state congress, voice rising over outbursts of applause.
The state’s most recent former governor, Roberto Borge Angulo, is just one in an embarrassingly long list of corrupt Mexican governors who have managed to thwart the law and evade justice.
Borge is accused of ghastly corruption that includes defrauding his state out of millions, and illegally acquiring nearly 25,000 acres of the state’s land—much of which was designated for public works—and selling it to friends and family.
As an aside, shady dealings in Quintana Roo is likely the reason why President Donald Trump holds a mighty grudge against Mexico and it’s people. He, too, was tied up in land disputes in the beautiful Mayan homeland.
But the land fraudulently appropriated by the former governor’s cohorts is among the most desirable real estate in the Mexican Caribbean. He allegedly oversaw the sale of 20 percent of the state territorial reserves—including protected bioreserves—in the tourist hub of Tulum, 23 percent of the island of Cozumel’s state land, and in other areas, like Puerto Morelos, the percentage soars as high as 60 percent of the state’s property.
Borge, who bankrupted the state and left it with more than one billion dollars of debt before disappearing, also left behind a bill for more than $48.5 million owed for private helicopter rentals used during his term.
One week before his term came to an end this past September—the week he first disappeared—the incoming administration revealed that Borge was being investigated for allegedly siphoning off more than $100 million from state coffers for his own illicit enrichment—money that was designated for tourism purposes.
“You”—Jacinto said on Wednesday, pointing his little fingers at the audience of public officials—“why won’t you legislate to have him put behind bars? Are you afraid, or did he already meet your price?”
“Why won’t you do your job?” he demanded, in the brief but chilling speech.
“Corruption has become a way of life,” he said. “I exhort you all to join those of us who say ‘No!’ to corruption.”
Though his speech received shattering applause, at times, his words surely caused discomfort for at least a few in attendance. But it also helped bring renewed national attention to the allegations against the governor.
With two of the country’s numerous fugitive former governors arrested in recent weeks, for the average Mexican it can be hard to keep track of the staggering political corruption that has devastated states across Mexico.
But this Friday, Cinco de Mayo, a week from Jacinto’s fiery speech, the first of more than a dozen of Borge’s allegedly criminal collaborators was arrested in the resort city of Cancun. The former secretary of urban development and housing, Mauricio Rodríguez Marrufo, was detained for his role in the illegal scheme—authorizing the sale of parcels of state-owned land valued in the millions.
Quintana Roo State Prosecutor Miguel Ángel Pech told El Universal on Friday that anywhere from 11 to 14 officials will soon be arrested across the state.
Despite this, on Thursday the journalist Ciro Gómez Leyva asked Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong if the government knows where Borge is.
But instead of answering the question, the interior minister said that his government “is protecting absolutely no one.”
This much, of course, is true—as evidenced by Mexico’s unending slew of forced disappearances, kidnappings, rapes, extortions, tortures, rampant corruption and impunity, thriving drug cartels, and nearly 80,000 victims who have been violently murdered in the four years since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office. (Journalist Jorge Ramos noted on Saturday that at this pace, by the time the president leaves office next year, the number of brutal deaths during his term may surpass even the total of those killed during the bloody Mexican Revolution.)
But what the interior minister really meant by his comment, one can assume, is that the government is not covering up for the missing governor.
Yet, he said, the government is not actively looking for Borge either.
Former governor Borge isn’t really missing, per se. He has been seen in public since he skipped town last September, just days before he was supposed to appear to turn over control of the state to the new governor, Carlos Joaquín González.
As the missing governor, and the legislator that he left his wife for, watched the Miami Heat play off against the Houston Rockets, an armed commando was bursting into the Cancun prosecutor’s office, murdering four people, and injuring several more.
As the couple enjoyed themselves from the safety of the United States, his state continued to descend into cartel-related chaos.
Currently, at least four criminal drug trafficking organizations—including the recently extradited drug-lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, and the sanguinary Zetas cartel—are vying for control of the drug trade in the beach resorts, and popular party hubs frequented by bikini-clad and well off foreign tourists.
The area has been riddled with drug violence, despite its somewhat exclusive resort status.
In fact, the day before the former governor was photographed at the Miami Heat game, his state hosted the BPM electronic music festival in Playa del Carmen, an event that attracted thousands of international music fans. During the event, an armed commando opened fire at the Blue Parrot club.
Horrifically, five attendees—from Canada, Italy, and Mexico—were fatally gunned down, and one American teenage girl was trampled to death in the ensuing stampede, as partygoers ran for their lives.
Several witnesses told me, hours after the shootout, how they had cowered in horror under a table, to avoid the bloodshed.
Driving through Quintana Roo this week with a source—a former cartel operative who has worked in several Mexican states—he gave me his version of what caused the massacre of tourists.
I’ll call the retired enforcer “Rafael” for his protection.
“It was the businesses that fucked up,” Rafael said. “The event was going to be huge, they were comparing it to the parties in Ibiza, and the club-owners got greedy. None of the cartels had been asking them for a cut before that, but then they fucked it up.”
“They didn’t have any backing [from the cartels], and hadn’t asked for permission either. But they went off on their own to Mexico City and brought back someone else’s drugs. Big mistake,” he said. “Here, everyone watches everything—who comes, who goes, who’s who, who works where, and who they work for.”
“So, they see the drugs flowing, and start asking questions—‘How much for half a gram [of cocaine]?’—And they say it’s something like 500 pesos or even 1,000,” Rafael said, roughly $25 to $50 for a baggie or balloon of coke. “So, obviously the watchers weren’t happy about that. They say, ‘This party’s over. That was my business. And you’re coming in on it. Well, I’m here to take it back. Who the fuck you think you are?’ And so then the blood runs. They should have seen it coming. Pendejos.”
While driving past a bridge in Playa del Carmen this week, Rafael turned and said, “Right after the massacre at Blue Parrot, they hanged a body from that bridge. It wasn’t in the news, but the sign they put up next to it—imagine, all covered in blood—said: ‘You are now on notice that from today moving forward you all have to pay piso. It’s over, assholes.’”
No one sells drugs here, or pretty much anywhere in Mexico, without giving the bosses their cut.
“That was Sinaloa,” he said, explaining how one of Mexico’s oldest and most established cartels are “real professionals” about their work.
“So, Sinaloa sent the big bosses in, because shit was getting out of control. All these idiot punks from the other cartels fucking shit up everywhere, but Sinaloa are respectable people, they don’t fuck with people who aren’t involved with the shit. The others don’t give a fuck,” he said. “It’s bad for business.”
“It hurts the government too,” he said. “Obviously, they aren’t doing anything about it, but they don’t really want this shit in the newspaper either.”
Beyond the allegations of fiscal impropriety against the governor, during his term, Borge showed an utterly sinister disrespect for the beautiful state he was charged with caring for. But he also fought to squash the dissenting voices of the people who do love their land.
In 2014, the then 34-year-old governor came under international fire for pushing a law that would allow authorities in the state to suppress any protest deemed inconvenient. The law suggested criminalizing protests in areas considered tourist destinations—of which, the state has many.
The anti-protest law became a reality in May of that year, when it was approved by the state congress—comprised largely of the same crowd who last Wednesday applauded 12-year-old Jacinto for deriding their corruption and inaction.
During Borge’s term, the state government also approved the destruction of the Tajamar mangroves of Cancun.
It’s one of the worst so-called “eco-cides” on memory in Mexico, and its destruction caused outrage across the country.
The state tourism board boastfully released a video featuring renderings of what the once wild mangroves would look like, once the coastal marshlands were paved over with concrete, and dozens of massive resorts and condominiums erected where there once was only natural beauty.
The proposals for the land included a gaudy Catholic mega-church on land occupied by crocodiles, tiger herons, iguanas, lizards, rare birds, and nearly a dozen species of endangered flora and fauna.
The area’s intricate channels and natural water exchanges were severed as the area was compartmentalized by a network of carved out roads. And, although the governor said the project would be done with utmost care and in keeping with the law, the state sent in a large crew at the crack of dawn to work at breakneck speed, using heavy machinery to destroy everything in sight—with the backup of state security forces keeping watch.
Local activists and environmentalists released images of the devastation, showing butchered crocodiles hidden amongst freshly cut-down mangroves.
The state’s ecological board was supposed to relocate the animals before initiating the project, but instead the state tourism board had allowed the workers to kill everything in sight as quickly as possible.
After the tourism board ordered the destruction of the mangrove, the environmental agency did not sanction them, because the work was done with the blessing of the state government.
In November, the aggrieved state of Quintana Roo asked the federal government to issue an alert so that former governor Borge could not flee the country. But, regardless, no one stopped him from leaving, nor did they put other countries on notice.
After all, as the interior minister confirmed this Friday, Borge is—officially—not a wanted man.
Two weeks ago, the state congress decided to finally reduce the number of officials assigned to Borge’s official security detail to just ten, down from 44. So, the minister’s line about authorities “not protecting” the former governor is demonstrably a bit of a stretch.
It’s groundhog day in Mexico. This story is becoming tired and repetitive—playing out over and over and over again.
For years, Mexico’s corrupt governors have obscenely and blatantly used state budgets as their own personal piggy banks. Mexico’s rampant corruption—officially estimated at about $100 billion each year—is propped up and endorsed by a system that is broken at every juncture.
“Enough corrupt governors and politicians!” little Jacinto demanded. “The corruption is embedded in all of our systems.”
Jacinto is a smart kid. In less than five minutes, the Mayan sixth-grader said more about the reality in Mexico than anyone with real power ever dares.
He spoke of bribery, omission, the government’s criminal collusion, the nation’s largest television broadcasters only sharing news that benefits the federal government, the inequality and classism that allows the few to control the many, the hypocrisy of the state government running indigenous people off their land while the political class line their own pockets by illegally selling off parcels of the state—fertile land once ruled by Jacinto’s Mayan ancestors, before they too were conquered by an arrogant invading class.
The boy, who used his teacher’s cell phone to access the internet in order to prepare his speech, told a local Quintana Roo news outlet that he also reads the newspapers whenever he can—on occasion, when travelling in someone’s car, he said, he’ll get to read their paper.
“Of course I understand the importance of what I told Congress,” he said. “I was chosen to represent the [local] Mayans.”
During his speech, he also addressed his teacher. “I need you on my side, too,” he said, adding that it is up to teachers, families, and Mexico’s political class to form the next generation of Mexicans—a generation willing to shrug off the plague of corruption that has drained the country of its resources, left its most forgotten people without opportunity, and cruelly cut so many lives short.
Online, social media users and commenters said of the 12-year-old boy, without the slightest hint of sarcasm, “Ángel Jacinto Noh Tun for president, 2018.”
The situation in Mexico is so dire, that online commenters repeated this thought over and over, lamenting that this 12-year-old boy could not be given the chance to lead the country—some suggesting next year’s presidential election, others looking toward his future.
“Hopefully, one day, he’ll be the president of Mexico,” said other social media users. They called his words “razor sharp,” and most agreed that he expressed himself more clearly and sincerely than most ever could, and would be a better leader than the politicians that the country has for so long been bedeviled with.
“We need a new generation of Mexicans like this child to shape Mexico’s destiny and end corruption,” said another user online.
Some called him the “boy prophet.”
And just as Jacinto began his speech (“Once, we were the rulers.”), many hoped that this Mayan boy could one day soon find his way out of dire poverty, and into a position of political power and influence, so that someday the people who truly love the land may rule again, once more.