Monday, May 18, 2015

Parachute Journalism Cont'd

If you saw the last two posts and are still interested in the puzzling local news practices on display in the skydive tragedy in Puerto Vallarta last week, here's the latest dubious hearsay.

Vallarta Daily reports this morning that the British family of one of the two missing and presumed dead jumpers, Varsha Maisuria pictured above, have taken it on themselves to search for equipment capable of reaching the underwater wreckage and the bodies.

They're in water anywhere from from 500 to 1,000 meters deep. Local search and rescue teams can dive no deeper than 100 meters.

But buried in the story are two interesting new assertions about the chain of events leading to the crash. One says it actually began when the plane showed signs of mechanical trouble and started losing altitude. The passengers were all prepared to skydive and decided to get out while they could.

The other new purported "fact" was that the pilot "abandoned" the plane himself before it hit the water, apparently with the two women still attached to it. 

The story wonders aloud why the pilot would have violated "normal protocol" calling for a pilot to stay aboard until all passengers are out. It's a curious time for reportorial curiosity to make a sudden appearance. Apparently only questions that have obvious answers are worth asking.

The highly significant new tidbits were offered as usual without any attribution or any admission that the story has gaping holes that need filling.

There's no reference at all to the previously mentioned investigative report, which supposedly said the two surviving skydivers made a normal exit from the plane and parachuted safely before the two victims tried to jump and got caught on the landing gear.

The latest story repeats the assertion of all other previous accounts, which said the pilot and the two surviving passengers were rescued from the water after the crash.

If the plane was really losing altitude fast because of engine failure, you could speculate that  it hadn't yet climbed high enough for actual skydiving and the three survivors all jumped out quite close to the water. But at this point who knows except those three?

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. But Vasha Maisuria's family certainly does. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

This Just In!

Well, wouldn't you know it. No sooner do I hit the "publish" button on my blog post earlier today about the scanty news coverage of our skydiver crash than along comes more coverage.

No worries for me, however, because it doesn't make the reporting look any better. In fact it raises more questions than it answers.

The fresh story was posted by Vallarta Opina, a local paper and website that's supposed to be as good as it gets around here.

The new development was a summary issued by the state prosecutor's office on its previously unreported investigation of the incident.

The summary included a brief paraphrase of the pilot's statement to investigators. He's supposed to have told them that he took off with two pairs of jumpers aboard and that the first pair -- two men -- cleared the airplane with no problem.

The second pair -- the two women -- got caught on the plane as we know. The pilot tried but failed to reach them from the cockpit, so he began to descend. But the women's parachute suddenly deployed, and its drag pulled the plane into a spin that the pilot couldn't control.

If we accept this as an accurate summary of what the pilot said, he had to be the only person left inside the plane when it crashed. The Cessna 80 has a maximum of six seats, and it's been reported only five were aboard at the start of the trip. Two parachuted safely, which left the pilot and the two missing women.

Yet the rescue teams said they rescued three. Did the two men who jumped safely not make it to their planned landing site and need rescuing themselves? Or was the plane overloaded and there were actually two more passengers?

Vallarta Opina makes no effort to reconcile the pilot's statement with any of the previously reported facts. In fact it seems unaware of them, reporting incorrectly today that the dead women remain unidentified, which they aren't. The paper follows local custom and confines itself to reporting what came in over the transom.

And to make things even weirder, searchers located the plane in water either 500 meters deep or 1,000, depending on which story you believe. The wreckage is too deep to retrieve with any equipment available here. But they say they can see it, and there's no sign of the women's bodies.

Maybe this sort of slow dribble of factoids is the right way to tell a story after all. I'm certainly hooked.

Inquiring Minds

A week ago Thursday a single engine Cessna was spotted a mile north of where we live, flying just a few hundred feet above the water about half a mile off shore. Somebody was hanging underneath it.

As sunbathers and hotel guests watched in horror from the beach, the aircraft went into a brief spin, plunged into the bay and sank.

News accounts quickly appeared online in both English and Spanish. The Cessna 180 was owned by a skydive operation. There were five people aboard when the plane took off. Three were pulled from the water. Search and rescue  teams weren't able to reach the deep-sunk wreckage or locate the other two passengers, now presumed dead.

One story on the day after the accident mentioned in passing that the events leading to the crash appeared to have begun when a pair of skydivers jumped from the plane and their equipment got tangled in the landing gear.

After that and to this day, nothing.

Obviously there's a story of mortal terror to be told about whatever happened starting with the violent lurch and tilt thousands of feet above the bay that must have been the first sign that the jump had gone wrong, and ending with the crash witnessed by hundreds.

The pilot and two passengers survived without serious injuries, but I've found no sign in public media of anything they might have to say about the chaotic survival struggles inside and outside the tiny cabin of that Cessna as it descended toward the water.

Yesterday Pam spotted a brief item in the UK Daily Mail identifying one of the dead as a British woman who was making her first tandem jump with an instructor. Her family pleaded in the piece for continuation of the search for her body.

The other victim was also identified as the jump instructor, a California woman described by friends in another brief from Lompoc CA as an adventure seeker. Both of them may have been swept from the plane high above and well away from the crash site. If so, the person seen clinging to the undercarriage may have been one of the survivors trying to jump to the water at low altitude before the crash.

I hope somebody bothers to tell us some day.

What amazes me isn't so much that the information hasn't been reported. There are only three living witnesses, and at least two of them seem to have been foreigners who may have gone home. The third, the pilot, may not want to talk or may have been told not to.

But it's remarkable that the local stories in both English and Spanish are straight police blotter renditions that don't even acknowledge the absence of nearly all the details that would be crucial to understanding what took place, or hint at any attempt to dig them out.

All this is sadly typical of what passes for news in Puerto Vallarta, a city of a quarter million that you'd expect to be better served by its news media. In fact there are at least a half dozen tabloids in addition to the four or five online sites I follow.

They offer a steady diet of luridly illustrated murders and assaults, car wrecks, and arrests of parents or neighbors accused of sexual abuse of children in their care. Sourcing is almost entirely limited to official statements and handouts. There's virtually no sign of reportorial enterprise of any kind.

I'm not suggesting that there's no real journalism south of the border. On the contrary, Mexico is now in the front rank of countries where reporters are threatened, beaten or even killed for poking too aggressively into narco-cartel business and other dark corners.

But the instincts and talents that drive that kind of journalism are curiously absent in our town, and I'm not sure why.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Just Politics

I've always been puzzled by the reflexive scorn heaped by many of my fellow expats on the least suggestion that there might be cause for concern over public safety here in Mexico. These days I'm more puzzled than ever.

Last Friday, members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel fanned out across Puerto Vallarta, where I live, and set several gas stations ablaze, firebombed two banks, burned a couple of buses and drove a pickup truck through the window of a shopping mall department store before setting it alight. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

The attacks were timed to coincide with similar incidents in Guadalajara and a dozen or more other towns across Jalisco, a Pacific coast state long known as the birthplace of tequila and mariachi music but now achieving notoriety as the home of one of the country's most vicious and powerful criminal enterprises.

Friday's mayhem was the latest in a series of increasingly bold demonstrations of the cartel's growing power to evade and retaliate against the government's attempts to suppress it.

Last month near San Sebastian del Oeste in the mountains about an hour east of here, cartel thugs with assault rifles ambushed an armed state police convoy, killing 15 officers before melting away into the surrounding hills.

On Friday, a truckload of gunmen taking part in the firebombing and blockading of roads around Guadalajara paused to shoot down a military helicopter that had caught sight of them on the road. Six soldiers died in the crash and more were hurt. They say it's the first time narcoterrorists have downed a Mexican government aircraft.

I'd have thought these events would give some pause to those who like to insist that it's silly to think of Mexico as any more dangerous for visitors than Omaha. But it hasn't. Here is a sample of the self-soothing affirmations of faith that still pepper expat blogs and conversation:

- U.S. State Department travel warnings about Mexico deliberately exaggerate the risks in hopes travelers will spend their vacations and their money at home.

- Media coverage of the killing and burning here is fear mongering, driven by ratings mania or even by racial and ethnic prejudice.

- The cartels are as eager as the government to avoid harm to Puerto Vallarta's reputation as a haven for well-heeled tourists and retirees, which is why the firebombers took care Friday to attack property and not people.

- You're as safe in Mexico as you are in Peoria. (As long as you only drive in the daytime. On the toll roads. And don't go places or do things that might cause you to be mistaken for anybody in the drug business. Oh, and last Friday, don't go outside until the firebombing stops.)

- And my personal favorite from last weekend, the violence is "just politics."

As proof that all is well, proponents offer the fact that they have lived and traveled in Mexico for years without ever having been mugged, meeting only the friendliest of people and partaking joyfully of the country's rich cuisine, culture and scenic wonders.

I'm happy to report that I can say the same thing. And I'll admit I don't feel any less safe than I did a week ago.

But this country is grappling with something that is starting to look less like a law enforcement problem than an armed insurgency. Cartel hoodlums may have tiptoed around the tourists in Puerto Vallarta last weekend. But they exploit, terrorize and oppress entire communities in rural areas off the beaten path that they control. If it suits them one day to kill or kidnap urban expats, I'm quite sure they will.

Yes, Mexico is still a great place for snowbirds to spend the winter, and no, the chances of getting caught in a cartel crossfire outside your condo still don't seem more than nominal at this time. I hope I still feel that way when it's time for us to come back in the fall.

But only a knucklehead with no genuine respect for his host country would go around bragging that smart gringos need have no worries, since the chaos, suffering and danger that confront many everyday Mexicans and their inadequate government don't have anything to do with us.