Angry about tortillas, Mexicans take to the streets

For Lucilea Cornejo, the rising price of the corn tortilla in Mexico is more than a matter of injustice.

"It is inhuman – the tortilla is the base of our diet, and this is the answer of a pueblo that is hungry," says Ms. Cornejo, a pensioner amid farmers, union members, and leftists protesting prices that have doubled in places. "Mad? We are indignant."

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has won accolades from Mexico and the US for his battle against drug cartels and organized crime since he took office Dec. 1. But in a country founded by people who worshiped corn gods and in which tortillas are a staple, this issue could prove his tougher fight.

Protesters in the center of Mexico City Wednesday held cobs of corn and signs reading, "We are people of maize." A tractor-trailer hummed down the main avenue, Reforma, as passengers chanted, "Without corn, we aren't a country."

Tens of thousands demanded a solution to a price spike that saw a kilogram of tortillas (2.2 pounds) rise by more than 50 percent in spots, and to 15 pesos in some shops last month, more than double the average price. The spike was blamed on demand by US ethanol plants, as well as speculation and hoarding by groups that produce cornmeal.

With a minimum wage of less than $5 a day here, the reasons behind the spike are less important than the pesos being lost. Naomi López cleans a building in Mexico City and earns 1,400 pesos ($127) a month. Her family of five used to consume a kilo of tortillas a day, or about 30 patties. Now they are only buying three-quarters that amount. Last month, Mr. Calderón signed an accord to cap tortilla prices at 8.5 pesos a kilo, but it is not enforced.

Ms. López says that the cap, and allowing more duty-free imports of corn, fall short. "It's just a screen to pretend they are fixing the problem," she says.

At the rally, some protesters yelled, "We don't want PAN," a play on Calderón's National Action Party, and the Spanish word for bread. Swaths of Reforma were shut to traffic. Vendors sold ice cream. Holding pictures of former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and decked out in his signature yellow, protesters blasted salsa music and danced.

After the rally, Mr. López Obrador put in a plug for a wage rise and a renegotiation of NAFTA clauses that will drop tariffs on corn and beans next year.

Maurilio Lima Garcia, a small corn and bean farmer, says he has benefited by rising corn prices, but worries that the cost of milk or sugar will spike, too. "It's not just prices, it's unemployment, NAFTA, the whole package," he says.

Sara Miller Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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