Guillermo Rossell de la Lama isn’t the most convincing flag-bearer for Mexico’s impoverished indigenous population. Once a heavy hitter in the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which has ruled the nation for six decades, Rossell served years ago as federal tourism secretary and governor of the state of Hidalgo. Among his close friends, he boasts, is President Ernesto Zedillo, whose government is trying to stamp out two guerrilla armies in Mexico’s predominantly Mayan southern states.
But Rossell, an architect by training, knows a business opportunity when he sees one. His Mexico City-based firm, Corporacion de Planificacion, could make out big in the casino industry. This is why he hooked up with American Indian Movement activist Bill Means, a Lakota, originally from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and a veteran of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation.
Means wants to build casinos that would fund Mexican indigenous development. In November, he flew Rossell and two of his associates to a Native American casino in Minnesota for a banquet. But Rossell almost blew it in his keynote speech: The fair-skinned former governor thought he was charming the Native Americans in the audience by comparing them to “my Indians in Hidalgo.”
A quick-thinking translator named Hector Garcia Islas sanitized Rossell’s telling choice of words for non-Spanish speakers. Garcia formerly headed up the Minnesota coalition that promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was also Garcia, as president of the Minneapolis consulting firm Mex-US CAN, who first introduced Means to Rossell in Mexico City this past summer.
These are some of the characters in a bizarre and disturbing plot. How it will unfold depends on whether the Mexican legislature drops the nation’s sixty-year-old casino ban (a move expected as early as this year), whether a rumpled PRI jefe like Rossell can cut a reliable deal with one of the world’s most corrupt regimes, and whether Means and his partners can actually deliver the casino spoils to the people who need help.
Just the idea of Mexican casinos worries Winona LaDuke, whose White Earth Chippewa reservation in northwestern Minnesota has been wracked by casino-related criminal convictions.
“I tend to think someone like Bill Means has pretty good judgment and a lot of experience,” says LaDuke, who won 600,000 votes as Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential running mate on the Green Party ticket in November. “On the other hand, this is a dangerous proposal for a country that has so much struggle between the haves and the have-nots.”
Ever since an indigenous rebel army surfaced in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, North American and European lefties have flocked to the southernmost Mexican state bearing aid. The Zapatista National Liberation Army has welcomed the medicine, school supplies, tools, vehicles, and food. But such solidarity doesn’t go far in a nation where sixteen million people suffer from what even the Mexican government calls “extreme poverty.”
When the rebellion started, the Chiapas infant-mortality rate–sixty-six deaths per 1,000 babies–was twice the national average, while a third of adult deaths in the state resulted from curable infectious diseases. The state’s 30 percent illiteracy rate was Mexico’s highest. More than half the Chiapas schools did not provide education beyond the third grade. The average salary was one-third the national average, and 54 percent of the population was malnourished.
This devastating poverty persists amid abundant natural resources. Pemex, the state-owned oil company, extracts almost 100,000 barrels of petroleum from Chiapas every year. The state produces a quarter of the meat consumed by Mexicans and more than half the nation’s hydroelectricity. Yet only 10 percent of the indigenous people of Chiapas can afford to eat meat regularly and most homes do not have electricity. The conditions have remained dreadful as the government has dragged out negotiations with the Zapatistas.
Means and his two Native American partners say casinos can make a difference. In October, they registered a limited-liability company called Calumet International with the state of Minnesota. Calumet is preparing a formal proposal to Mexico’s federal government, says one of the partners, William Gilbert of Springfield, Missouri. “We realized people would criticize us for dealing with the PRI, but who else do you deal with in Mexico?”
Means and his partners hope to develop the resorts in major tourist areas such as Cancun, Acapulco, and Baja California, then divert 50 percent of the earnings to a foundation that would fund specific indigenous development projects. Calumet has already raised “hundreds of millions of dollars” for the resorts, says Gilbert, a Lakota originally from the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. “But I can’t say from whom.”
Gilbert isn’t just blowing smoke. He and the third Calumet International partner, Louis Wayne Boyd of Mission, South Dakota, raised a bundle to transform a Kickapoo Tribe bingo hall in Horton Kansas, into the state’s first casino. The facility, called the Golden Eagle, opened last May
Means, president of the International Indian Treaty Council and brother of activist Russell Means, has support among some Native Americans for his casinos. “If they ask me to help, I’ll help,” says Vernon Bellecourt, the Minneapolis-based fieldservices coordinator of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis and a veteran American Indian Movement activist. “It’s either going to be the indigenous people that develop the casinos or it’s going to be the ruling oligarchy and the mafia.”
The Minnesota banquet was held at Mystic Lake Casino on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota reservation. Rossell brought two associates, Teodulo Camacho, a Mexico Citybased cosmetics manufacturer and real-estate developer, and his son, Francisco Camacho, an engineer. The three were impressed with Mystic Lake, the country’s second-largest Native American casino, which generates an estimated $500,000 a year for each of the tribe’s roughly 150 certified members.
The day after the banquet, Means took the Mexicans to the largest Native American gaming facility, a Connecticut resort called Foxwoods. Run by the Mashantucket Pequots, the casino grosses nearly $1 billion a year.
“In the United States, Indian people are starting to gain political power, and that’s because of casino profits,” says Gilbert. And, despite publicity that tends to focus on casino corruption, many tribes have put the windfalls to good use. The Mille Lacs Band of the Ojibwe in central Minnesota, for example, has devoted profit from its two casinos to a new water tower, two new schools, a major clinic, new housing, and new roads. This experience is valuable for Mexico’s indigenous people, Gilbert says. “Somebody’s got to take the lead. Who better than Native Americans?”
In the next breath, Gilbert derides the role of European “communists” and white North Americans in Chiapas. “You know they’re not going to overthrow the government,” he says. “The government would just start a wholesale slaughter of indigenous and rural people. Look what happened in Chiapas right after the rebellion started. So why not talk about something that will work?”
“If something happened in Guatemala,” he adds, “they’d all leave Chiapas and run there. After Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement had the same problem with all the non-Indians running around looking for the revolution.” Gilbert singles out Pastors for Peace, a Chicago-based group that has led twelve human-rights-observer delegations and five material-aid caravans to Chiapas since February 1995. “Pastors is doing a lot of good, but are they doing anything to bring in jobs and businesses for real change?”
Robin Hayes, a Pastors national cocoordinator, argues that her group took great care to consult human-rights organizations and indigenous representatives before launching its Chiapas program. “What we’ve done is exactly what we were asked to do,” she says.
This is more than Calumet can claim. Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress, which convened for the first time last October, has not taken a stand on casinos. Neither have the Zapatistas, according to their U.S. representative, Cecilia Rodriguez. “The Zapatista National Liberation Army is focusing on their lands, period,” she says from her office in El Paso, Texas. “It’s their livelihood and their way of life that’s at stake. Casinos are out in space.”
Calumet has failed to win significant Mexican indigenous support, but not for lack of trying. Gilbert and Means have been meeting for months with Indian leaders. And in December they met with indigenous leaders in the southern state of Oaxaca. “When it comes time to negotiate with the government, we’ll have indigenous people at our sides,” Gilbert insists.
“It’s possible,” agrees Rodriguez. “The Mexican government has always had economic and political relations with indigenous people to try to buy them off and to divide and confuse people at a community level.”
It seems only a matter of time before the Mexican legislature throws out a 1936 ban on casinos, despite staunch opposition from the Catholic Church and factions of all three major political parties. The government already allows public lotteries, racetrack betting, and rural cockfights. And a casino bill submitted by the federal tourism department last year generated widespread interest. The legislature finally tabled the measure, but is expected to consider casinos again this year.
The bill aimed to attract more U.S. visitors, who comprised 87 percent of Mexico’s foreign tourists in 1995. Tourism, the nation’s third-largest industry, accounts for 12 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. A Harrah’s Entertainment study predicts that casinos will bring $5 billion a year and 129,000 jobs to the country over a five-year period. The U.S. casino experience, however, suggests that even if Mexican gaming were limited to tourist areas, it would inevitably attract some of the people who can least afford to plug coins in a slot machine.
Sniffing the imminent booty, Nevada interests have descended on the capital. Last May, they funded an International Gaming Summit that Gilbert and Means attended in Mexico City. And homegrown casino backers include nice guys like Enrique Molina, the billionaire owner of Cancun’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, who, according to Mexican press reports, has been investigated for alleged drug-trafficking ties. Gilbert says not to worry. “We decided to ensure that, if and when Mexico institutes gaming, the Indian people receive some benefit,” Gilbert says.
The Zapatistas’ Rodriguez isn’t counting on it. “Indigenous people in Mexico are not organized into reservations like in the United States,” she says. “They’re negotiating for autonomy that was never known in the United States. It’s like trying to apply NAFTA to communities that don’t have roads, sewers, or services.”.
Chip Mitchell is editor of Connection to the Americas, the monthly magazine of the Minneapolis-based Resource Center of the Americas.