The Battle for Puerto Vallarta

Why would a foreigner give a hoot about who is the next mayor of Puerto Vallarta?  First of all, more foreign-born transplants are moving to the Mexican coastal resort city, especially from the United States and Canada. Second, the emerging metropolis on Banderas Bay and straddling the states of Jalisco and Nayarit is attracting more international visitors.

For instance, in one measurement, the cruise ship business is back in force after a post 2008 decline. According to the old Frontera NorteSur news service of New Mexico State University, cruise ship arrivals to Puerto Vallarta soared from 144 ships with 164,967 passengers in 1994 to 276 ships and 589,000 passengers in 2008. In 2013, though, only 80 ships with 164,062 passengers were scheduled to dock in Puerto Vallarta.

This year, however, the bayside city is expected to host 158 ships with 368,950 passengers, reported the federal Secretariat of Communications and Transportation.

Whoever is elected mayor July 1 will, of course, have a big hand in the quality of life and visiting experience for both residents and tourists, with responsibilities pertaining to streets and sidewalks, ongoing polemics over garbage collection, the readiness of the local fire department and the leadership of the police department, always a thorny issue in Mexico.

With the upcoming vote in mind, Puerto Vallarta’s local chamber of commerce (Canaco-Servytur) organized a mayoral forum in late June. Eleven of the 12 candidates for the city’s top job spoke out on tourism, public safety and public works. The no-show was Hernan Carmona of the PRD party. Prior to the event held at one of Puerto Vallarta’s newer hotels, eight of the 12 candidates submitted written statements that were published in Canaco-Servytur’s newspaper. The mayoral candidates must field a slate of ten city council candidates and ten substitutes.

Greeting forum attendees, Carlos Gerard, president of the local Canaco-Servytur branch, set the record straight: “We don’t have an inclination toward any candidate. It’s important to say that.” Strictly enforcing time limits, chamber organizers limited each candidate to a nine-minute statement.

Leading off the roster of hopefuls was the Citizen Movement party’s Arturo Davalos, Puerto Vallarta’s mayor-on-leave who is seeking a second term and, if reelected will make history as the city’s first two-term mayor thanks to recent political reforms.  Many locals predict Davalos will win.

First elected in 2015, Davalos highlighted what he considered were the accomplishments of his administration-adding more police patrols, certifying honest officers, equipping firefighters, finishing public works in many needy neighborhoods, paying down the municipal debt, and more.

The day before the forum, the municipal police conducted a round-up of as many as 50 men charged with public nuisances (typically drinking in public, urinating on the streets and haranguing passerby) according to the Tribuna de Bahianewspaper. In one instance, this reporter observed several young men handcuffed in the back of a police truck before they were whisked away.

Davalos delivered an upbeat assessment of Puerto Vallarta’s prospects, saying “we are among the safest eight cities in Mexico, confirmed by the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics and 100 percent (lodging) occupation.”

According to Davalos, Puerto Vallarta’s tourism industry-virtually the only game in town-has rebounded tremendously since a sharp downturn about a decade ago due to the Great Recession and other factors, with statistical indicators beating the preceding year’s since 2015.  Proof of a better business environment is evidenced in the filling of 300 of 500 formerly empty storefronts in the downtown core, Davalos said.

“We are going to grow tourism in a safe and clean city,” he vowed.

The two-time mayoral candidate left the forum after his nine minutes expired, citing a busy agenda as the reason. Consequently, Davalos wasn’t present to hear criticisms of his administration, and the state of Puerto Vallarta, from the rival candidates.

The Critics Take the Stand

Enrique Gerardo Gou Boy, the candidate for the Mexican Green Party (PVEM) prefaced his remarks by saying that he was a non-party member, or “citizen” candidate, who had agreed to run on the ticket. Gou Boy sharply criticized the persistent trash problem on the streets, and the size of sidewalks that are “impossible” to walk on.

Pointing to his experience as a former resident of Cancun who organized the Caribbean city’s now famous jazz festival, Gou Boy argued that Puerto Vallarta needs more events of that magnitude as a strategy to survive the infamous low tourist season (May-October), when workers are regularly laid-off and some businesses temporarily close their doors.

Independent candidate Francisco “Pepe” Martinez advocated that public works contracts go to locals so “the greatest amount” of money stays in town, while another independent, Maximo Martinez, proposed boosting tourism through cultural activities, developing ancient ruins and luring group meetings to the city. “We have a convention center and we need to take advantage of it,” he said. Martinez criticized the condominium boom in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, claiming that “50 (construction) permits have unduly gone out … we can’t permit this.”

“I am a father, Catholic, humanist, and businessman,” was how the conservative National Action Party’s Saul Lopez introduced himself. The youthful candidate ran down seven specific proposals including downtown revitalization, a new tramway, a sunken boat attraction and an ecological park for the El Salado lagoon, home of crocodiles and migratory birds.

Luis Alberto Lopez, an independent candidate and journalist by profession, took sharp jabs at the current municipal administration, blasting the “corruption” nobody addresses.

“As a journalist I’ve always been a pessimist, and as a candidate even more so. We have to cut the (political) campaigns,” Lopez said.

Heriberto Sanchez of the National Alliance Party, who characterized contemporary Puerto Vallarta as a “dark and dirty” city, was also forceful in  his words. Sanchez described a chaotic airport and harried circumstances for pedestrians in places like the boulevard between the cruise ship terminal and a familiar super store.

“It’s a shame you have to risk your life to cross the street to buy something at Walmart,” he quipped. Sanchez also accused the Davalos administration of being “corrupt,” bloated with “lazy employees” and non-essential “advisors to advisors.”

A soft-spoken chemist and entrepreneur, Maria Laurel Carrillo of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s electoral coalition, made up of the Morena, PT and PES political parties, is the only woman in the mayoral race.

“We don’t have commitments to anyone, only the people,” Carrillo insisted. The first-time candidate said one of her acts as mayor will be to sit down with Canaco-Servytur and other community organizations to draft an “integrated strategic plan” for Puerto Vallarta. She called for downtown revitalization, bringing more European tourists to Puerto Vallarta and promoting regionally produced goods such as the mezcal like beverage raicilla and coffee.

As a relatively unknown politician until now, it remains to be seen if Carrillo will benefit from a possible “AMLO effect,” or heavy vote for presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that will extend to other Morena candidates.

For his part, a wonkish Roberto Gonzalez of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) proposed greater attention to the non-touristic sector of the economy, proposing major investment in the fertile lands surrounding his Pacific coast city.

“Puerto Vallarta is only classified as a touristic place, when we have a formidable countryside,” the higher education professional said.

Based on government statistics, Gonzalez painted a troubling socio-economic picture of Puerto Vallarta, contending that more than half of the economically active population only brings in between $45 and $200 per month; the stupendous growth of a city made famous by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor has primarily benefited a small elite, he contended.

As elsewhere in Mexico, public safety looms as a huge issue in Puerto Vallarta. In addition to commonplace burglaries and armed heists of convenience stores and gas stations, spectacular incidents last spring added to the concerns, including the simultaneous armed robberies of two jewelry stores in broad daylight and, separately, the arrest of the deputy municipal police chief who was accused of participating in the forced disappearance of two federal police agents who were later found murdered, allegedly at the behest of a drug cartel.

At the same time, earlier forced disappearances that have jolted Vallartense society, including the high-profile cases of dance instructor Erika Cueto and City Councilman Humberto “Beto” Gomez in 2014 and 2015, respectively, remain unresolved.

Each of the 11 participating candidates had specific proposals for the public safety realm, though many shared positions around improving the quality of police officers, hiking officer salaries, encouraging community policing, and ensuring that public security cameras function.

Crime prevention was also broached, with Maximo Martinez urging the restructuring of the police force and neighborhood block watches, Saul Lopez favoring art and sports activities for youth and independent Francisco Romero, a self-described mariachi, advocating musical training as an alternative to violence.  “We have music in our blood,” Romero maintained, saying it was better to have an instrument than a gun.

Social Movements and Electoral Politics

The Puerto Vallarta mayoral race has proven to be an opportunity for human rights, environmental, land rights and other social movement activists to enhance their presence through the formation of the Social Council Collective (CSC), which is fielding city hall watchdog Fernando Sanchez for mayor as an independent candidate. Sanchez was a local spokesman for the anti-gasoline price hike movement that flared in Puerto Vallarta and across the country in early 2017.

At the mayoral forum, Sanchez stood out for his proposals to ensure “total transparency” in government by taping the daily activities of public officials while opening up city council meetings to direct citizen involvement in decision-making. “When you are a public figure, you are a public figure the moment you leave your house,” Sanchez told the assembled audience.

No measures should pass the council without the input of specialists in a given subject, i.e., architects or engineers, as well as the general public, he said.

In an interview, Sanchez later detailed the grassroots political initiative launched by the CSC. According to the political hopeful, independent candidates like himself were required to form a non-profit organization such as the CSC and pay the hefty, corresponding fees.

Sanchez’s candidacy was at first rejected by the state electoral authority because of a dispute over the geographic scope of nominating petition signatures. But the activist appealed to the state electoral court and won, gaining ballot status in late May and giving him time for a few weeks’ worth of campaigning.

“The system didn’t want us to participate,” he maintained. Sanchez stressed the community nature of his campaign, telling this reporter that he counts on a core group of 25 volunteers plus another 100 or 150 others who occasionally pitch in. Campaign funds, he added, hail from the pockets of supporters.

“We aren’t rich and what we had was money contributed by ourselves.”

The CSC is pushing a 10-point program containing planks for good government, slashing salaries of high-ranking municipal officials, improving public safety, fomenting culture and sports, basing economic development on local businesses, reactivating municipal medical services, and supporting quality education in schools.

In pounding the pavement of Puerto Vallarta’s different neighborhoods, CSC campaigners have heard an earful about public safety, Sanchez said. “(Puerto Vallarta) was known as the friendliest city in the world,” he lamented. “That’s because you could sleep with your door open.”

Sanchez added that the CSC’s efforts will continue after election day. “This is the work of conscious people who want to change Puerto Vallarta,” he said.

The Mayor’s Battle in Context

In a larger sense, the Puerto Vallarta mayoral race is a microcosm of the Mexican political scene in 2018, a fragmentary one which is characterized by the proliferation of independent candidacies, office-holders seeking reelection for the first time, the growing profile of women candidates, and the rise and fall of various political parties. Notably, five of the 12 contenders in the Puerto Vallarta mayoral contest are independents.

Although many parties have banded together to field joint presidential and congressional candidates in the national races, the fragility of such electoral coalitions is apparent in state and local contests like Puerto Vallarta’s where the different forces are frequently going it alone. Nonetheless, Lopez Obrador’s coalition has stuck together behind Laurel Carrillo for mayor of Puerto Vallarta,

As the July 1 vote approaches In Puerto Vallarta and Jalisco, the old domination of local and state politics by the PRI and PAN parties appears to be on the verge of final burial. If local predictions are on mark, the two leading statewide parties likely to emerge after July 1 will be the centrist Citizen Movement party and the center-left Morena party, both of which nevertheless host defectors from the PRI, PAN and other political parties.

In Puerto Vallarta and other tourist destinations already suffering the low season blues, businesses and their workers reliant on liquor sales will take another economic hit the weekend of July 1, when a dry law takes effect until the voting is over.

This story originally appeared on Digiezone.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.