For months we've had a sneaking suspicion that the new Mexican consul in Santa Ana was working hard to transform the consulate from the effective, outreach-heavy post it once was under wildly popular former consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro to a mere prop of elitist Mexican puffery. Many have whispered that the consulate has taken a turn for the worst under the direction of new consul Carlos Rodríguez y Quezada and his sidekick Manuel Herrera, the deputy consul who clashed with Ortiz Haro on numerous occasions (and proceeded to lie to us on several). Ortiz Haro was appointed by former president Vicente Fox, served for five years and then was dismissed by incoming president Felipe Calderón, who tapped Rodríguez y Quezada, a former ambassador, for the post last February.
We've just heard from several of the consulate's longest-serving and most-experienced employees that they've been fired without warning or explanation. Three of the five employees who were given verbal notice a few days ago have sent a letter of protest to president Calderon, outlining Rodríguez y Quezada's shrewd takeover and the intimidation tactics used by Herrera since he was promoted in February. The ousting of these five employees is the latest in an exodus that began earlier this year. Faced with pressure from the new consul and Herrera, and an environment that many have said has become increasingly hostile to the population of Mexican residents it is set up to serve, longtime consulate employees like Socorro Sarmiento and others, like Silvia Jimenez, have quit.
Nervous, frustrated employees and non-profit affiliates have said that the Rodríguez y Quezada-Herrera consular tag-team is creating of a kind of self-serving ambassador's post--one that is quickly being re-populated by Mexican elites more interested in promoting high culture and rubbing elbows with local politicians than in helping their brethren in need.
The consul and his sidekick have cut off useful services to outlying county areas, and have severed partnerships with local non-profits. They've turned their attention instead to exclusive wine-and-hors d'oeuvre shindigs with select media outlets and local politicians, and to the promotion of highbrow Mexican art, flying in opera singers and other artists for posh performances in the county. The once-accessible downstairs office occupied by Ortiz Haro during his famous, crowded, open-door sessions, has been moved upstairs, where a larger, hidden office for the new consul sits behind several waiting rooms and a receptionist screening area.
The three employees who penned the letter to the president--and have gone public with it--are Laura Pantoja, Luis Humberto Macias Pacheco and Mildret Mireya Avila Garcia. In it, they say they've been threatened and intimidated by Herrera, have been forced to participate in extracurricular consular activities for which they were never paid, and have watched as experienced employees have slowly been replaced by less-experienced appointees through acts of blatant favoritism. Their biggest worry, they say, is that the consulate that became among the three busiest in the country (beating out Los Angeles) under Ortiz Haro's direction is suffering irreparable damage.
The first clue we had that things were changing for the worst at the small, routinely packed consulate office was when I went in for an interview early this year with the new consul over a mishap at an adult school in San Juan Capistrano involving the Minutemen. Expecting to walk into a downstairs office like I had on previous visits to the affable and exceedingly accessible Ortiz Haro, I was led instead upstairs to a waiting room outside another waiting room outside of the consul's "new" (and very secluded) digs.
There, a receptionist/executive assistant type asked me who I was, what I wanted and huffed and puffed a little because I didn't have a scheduled appointment. I was then shuffled in to see Manuel Herrera, who tried to dissuade me from talking to the new consul about the Minuteman incident and tried to puff up the consulate's upcoming arts programming. What Herrera didn't mention was that he had not only been there when the incident happened, but had also hidden in the school's offices while a volunteer was being assailed by a group of Minuteman protesters outside. Only later, after I had the police report, did Herrera admit to also having been there. When I finally got to Rodríguez y Quezada, he gave me vague, abstract answers, either because he didn't know, but probably because he didn't want to talk about it. Instead, he also elaborated on his plans for more arts programming.
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Several days after my interview with Rodríguez y Quezada, Herrera called me in a panic and proceeded to feed me a pack of lies: the Weekly, he said, had not been formally approved by the Mexican government for interview privileges with the consul, so the interview would need to be retracted (Lie #1). Because we were more of an "arts" paper and not a serious investigative daily, he wasn't sure if we would ever get approval, he said (Lie #2). We would need to submit a batch of examples of the Weekly for approval by the government in Mexico (Lie #3) before permission to use the interview could be granted.
Rodríguez y Quezada's comments were useless to the story anyway, so it didn't much matter, but the behavior was strange and deceptive. We checked with the Mexican consulate in Washington D.C., and discovered that no such approval requirement exists. Either Herrera was worried about his butt being singed by the higher-ups for permitting the interview with Rodríguez y Quezada in the first place, or he was worried that it might come out that perhaps he was the one to blame for the disaster at the adult school.
It's not terribly surprising that Herrera has now been singled out by these former employees as the one who has led the charge of intimidation and deception since the new consul took office.
More on this story to come...