TIJUANA, Mexico—Fuel shortages, unchecked holiday violence, and an explosive fireworks disaster have blighted these last weeks in Mexico, capping off a year plagued by political corruption scandals, cartel bloodletting, and a plummeting currency value.
Yet Mexico’s political class and media hid almost effortlessly behind one massive smoke screen in the final days of 2016.
Last week, all eyes were on Rubí.
The violence-afflicted country, which two weeks ago solemnly marked one decade in its unending drug war, obsessed about a rural 15-year-old’s birthday party in what may have been the strangest quinceañera in Mexico’s history, and what certainly was the most talked about fiesta of the year.
Last Monday, as many as 60,000 people—including journalists from dozens of news outlets—travelled to the state of San Luis Potosí north of Mexico’s capital to celebrate Rubí Ibarra’s birthday, which was among the top trending stories on Mexican Twitter and YouTube, and dominated the national media’s news coverage.
It started as a joke, a viral meme that made the rounds for weeks, as millions shared Rubí’s father’s open invitation to the quinceañera, a celebration meant to mark Rubí’s passing into womanhood in her tiny, dusty hometown of La Joya, population 143, which survives mainly on the income from goats, beans, sheep, corn, and remittances.
“Everyone is invited,” he said in the video invitation on Dec. 1, sealing his family’s fate. To date there have been more than 4.75 million views.
But what started as a country cruelly mocking the rural birthday girl’s party, soon did a 180 as Mexico became the butt of its own joke.
Politicians and Mexican companies leapt over each other to get in on the meme, ludicrously one-upping each other as the month progressed until last Monday, when the unavoidable, all-consuming party was under way. And while the attention it got obscured dozens of more important news stories, in another sense the country saw nearly everything that is wrong with Mexico unfold in the story of Rubí’s bubbling, bumbling birthday celebration.
In the video, Rubí’s father, Crescencio Ibarra, wore a sombrero and announced a 10,000-peso prize—roughly $490— for the winner of an informal horse race. But as viral news of the party and prize spun out of control, so did all reason.
In the event, one participant was trampled to death by another rider’s horse mid-race, and at least one other person was injured in the crowd, reportedly breaking a leg while jumping a fence to reach the festivities.
Rubí’s uncle explained that the now-deceased man had been drinking—likely some of the copiously dispensed tequila provided by sponsors, or the free beer sent by Heineken-brand Tecate, or jello shots courtesy of a Mexico City company, or indeed all of the above.
As for Rubí—the tiara-wearing teenager at the heart of the meme, the face of the trending topic #XVdeRubí—she was at times frightened, concerned, and upset, appearing mostly overwhelmed during the spectacle, which livestreamed on Facebook and multiple YouTube channels.
In days leading up to the party, a video made the rounds showing Rubí’s fraught mother as she explained the jesting cruelty was beginning to affect her. “We never meant for this to get out of control,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It isn’t fair.”
But for weeks prior to the debacle the Mexican media and political sphere did just about everything possible to promote the event—meant to be a family affair—with zero regard for the birthday girl, the public’s best interest, or, apparently, their own reputations.
The cynicism often was grotesque.
Mexico State, just a bit south of San Luis Potosí, has the highest femicide rate in the country. Nearly half the women polled reported they were victims of violence last year. But Mexico State Governor Eruviel Ávila personally phoned Rubí’s father, offering the girl and her family an all-expense paid trip to Valle de Bravo, a popular retreat for Mexico City’s most affluent elite.
He then egged on Mexican airline Interjet to pay for the family’s airfare, which it agreed to do, in addition to offering 30 percent off flights to San Luis Potosí so customers could go to the “event of the year.”
As it happened, days after the governor invited Rubí to Valle de Bravo, Mexican senator and Olympic track and field medalist Ana Gabriela Guevara said she was beaten by four men, among them a former Mexico State police officer, on the highway from Valle de Bravo to Mexico City.
The senator was forced to undergo reconstructive surgery after the beating, which left her with broken bones in her face and a black eye.
Governor Ávila (who was criticized last week for showing off hospital beds occupied by patients recovering from a horrific fireworks accident in his state that left 33 people dead) expressed “solidarity” with the beaten senator.
He explained that the owners of the attackers’ vehicle have been identified. But no one has been arrested, in fact, and a judge granted the former police officer legal protection so that he cannot be detained.
Ávila, seemingly so generous to Señorita Ibarra, runs a state that became the first ever to be flagged with a so-called “gender-alert” in 2015, replacing Ciudad Juarez as the Mexican capital of murdered women, with nearly 2,000 killed in the past six years, and counting.
It has been called “a rapist’s paradise” and “hell, for women.” But the bad publicity has put no dent in the trend. Under Governor Eruviel Ávila, the promise of justice remains broken.
The dark crown jewel in Mexico State, with the fifth highest murder rate in the country, and the nation’s highest femicide rate, is Ecatepec de Morelos. And this week, wouldn’t you know, politicians decided finally to do something to help the poor people there.
Following the governor’s gift to Rubí, and in anticipation of a crowd of more than 1.3 million who claimed on Facebook to be “attending” the party, Octavio Martinez Vargas, a politician with the country’s leftist party, set up a tour bus leaving from deadly Ecatepec to San Luis Potosí, so that dozens more could attend Rubí’s vastly overbooked quinceañera.
In nearby Metepec—a city in Mexico State near the site of Senator Ana Gabriela Guevara’s beating—city councilman Jair Garduño Montalvo took to Facebook, to offer Rubí a brand new laptop if his post reached 2,000 likes.
It did not. But Garduño came under heavy criticism as Mexicans dredged through their collective memory of memes and remembered just where they’d heard of this guy before.
Garduño’s brother was a social media celebrity of sorts earlier this year.
In May, a viral video showed several bodyguards beating up a police officer on a Mexico State highway, apparently acting on the orders of a man nearby in a Rolls Royce. That man, #LordRollsRoyce as he’s now known, is this Metepec politician’s millionaire brother. Thanks to the social media pressure and meme fever, Emir Garduño Montalvo is now behind bars, charged with money laundering.
It is unclear if Rubí ever got that promised Garduño laptop. But another social media celeb dubbed “Lady Wuuu” assumed the role of Rubí’s godfather when he appeared with Raquel Bigorra, a television personality on TV Azteca whose station raged an all-out ratings war with Televisa over coverage of Rubí’s birthday party.
These two most important stations in Mexico, TV Azteca and Televisa, “control over 90 percent of the free-to-air television market,” Freedom House noted in 2012 in its Countries at the Crossroads report. This “Mexican media oligopoly has historically shared a close relationship with the government,” the report noted, and this concentration of power “is one of the primary impingements on freedom of expression” in Mexico.
So it came as no surprise that Televisa and TV Azteca offered deafening coverage of the event this week, along with reporters from just about every other national media outlet.
But for the small town of La Joya, San Luis Potosí, whose last census, let us not forget, counted just 143 people, what promised to be an unforgettable event became a logistical nightmare, as tens of thousands prepared to come to the party.
Weeks before the the planned festivities the media realized that La Joya is not exactly equipped to take in guests.
Mayor Raúl Castillo Mendoza of Villa de Guadalupe, the municipality that encompasses La Joya, said two weeks before Rubí’s birthday party that the region doesn’t have cell phone coverage, much less Internet. Nor does La Joya have basic infrastructure, like a hospital or sewage system or, in most homes, running water, electricity or paved roads.
“There is one spot where we have WiFi,” he noted of the greater Villa de Guadalupe area. “But it’s a landline with an antenna.”
Mexico’s electrical company offered a temporary solution for Rubí’s party, and Telcel—the telecom company that produced Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim—finally came out to survey the area for future coverage.
Four nearby towns worked together to provide lodging and services for the party’s guests, and the growing fiesta eventually was held on a dry lake bed in the neighboring town of Charcas. (When it was over, guests left behind three-and-a-half tons of beer cans and other debris in a scene reminiscent of Coachella.)
In the end, a Quintana-Roo-based company, Meganet, set up three large antennas and WiFi networks in the area to provide the media and party guests with Internet during the event.
It was the first time the area has ever had Internet access. But for how long?
Meganet representative Carlos Rojas said that maintaining the network after the big fiesta would require a “logistical effort, for electrical services, [and] installation of more antennas.”
So despite the miraculous days for the townspeople who were “surprised to have Internet, and asked that the service be maintained,” it is unlikely that any long-term network will remain now that the meme has died.
Rubí, personally, did get quite a few gifts. The governor of San Luis Potosí, Juan Manuel Carreras, actually did give her a computer. Fender gave her a customized electric guitar. Several prominent designers gave her enough dresses to warrant multiple outfit changes throughout the day, and styling for the whole family came courtesy of First Lady Angelica Rivera’s makeup artist.
But other gifts the girl received—valued at well above $50,000 by some estimates—were met with outrage.
One of Mexico’s slimiest mayors, Hilario Ramírez Villanueva—who is known for throwing money of dubious origin into crowds, and for admitting he stole “un poquito” from public coffers in Nayarit—gave Rubí a new bright red Chevy during the party.
“I stole, but just a little bit—because [the city] is so poor,” the San Blas mayor confessed in 2014. “But what I stole with this hand, I gave back to the poor with the other,” he told a laughing crowd.
The mayor also took the time to invite everyone at Rubí’s party to his own birthday party this Friday, while handing Rubí the keys to her new car.
Last year, the mayor celebrated his birthday in February with more than 10,000 guests who drank 1.2 million cans of beer, at a 15-million-peso party—more than $100,000 at last year’s exchange rate—during which he repeatedly exposed a young woman’s underwear, lifting up ++her dress while dancing on stage. Local media later claimed the girl was underage. The mayor also repeatedly has been filmed creepily kissing young women on the mouth.
But when asked about the car at Rubí’s 15th birthday party, the mayor claimed he paid for it with money that he “earns.” His stated salary is less than $2,000 a month, according to the local government transparency website.
Despite Ramírez Villanueva’s rather sordid reputation, he will be a contender for the Nayarit governor seat in 2017. If elected, he’s likely primed to join the ranks in years to come of fugitive Mexican governors.
While the birthday spectacle was under way last Monday in San Luis Potosí, sweeping gas shortages hit states across Mexico—including San Luis Potosí, where at least 86 percent of stations were without fuel. (News outlets like Univisión erroneously linked that to Rubí’s birthday party.) In fact, the cost of gasoline is expected to increase 20 percent beginning in January, as market-based prices are introduced following historic but controversial energy reforms in which Mexico’s crippled oil sector is opened for private investment.
Despite being an oil-rich country, Mexico imports well over half of its fuel due to the severe deterioration of its refineries. At least a dozen Mexican states reported fuel shortages last week in a crisis that the national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, alternately blamed on breaks in the supply chain, measures taken in anticipation of the changes to come in 2017, an increase in need during the holiday season, and organized crime. Pemex, to its credit, did not blame Rubí’s birthday.
In October, Pemex director Carlos Murrieta said that organized oil theft accounts for roughly one billion dollars in missing fuel each year. Chupaductos or oil “duct-suckers” have become a lucrative wing of organized crime groups, which in recent years have sought to diversify their income streams with extortion rackets, human trafficking, and abductions, in addition to more stalwart endeavors like drug trafficking.
Authorities have been playing cat-and-mouse with oil thieves, who latch onto largely unprotected fuel lines, syphoning off fuel by the barrel for sale on the black market. But, as is the case with most criminal ventures in Mexico, it is often the authorities themselves who are found working in collusion.
Dozens of journalists have been killed in Mexico for exposing the link between corrupt officials and organized crime, but at least one, Octavio Rojas Hernández, was murdered just days after reporting on a fugitive police chief’s ties to organized oil theft in 2014.
The Mexican press is often brave and embattled, but last week was not its finest moment.
Reporters, talk-show hosts, and the Mexican media at large managed to make themselves an absolute nuisance for Rubí’s family. Her mother quipped that “people from ranches are better behaved than the press people” during the fiesta. And her father called the media covering the party “rude” and “worse than animals.”
“I’m not looking for fame,” Rubí’s father said. “Let it be clear: I have my own job, and say that with honor.”
Still, you could see a certain symbiosis developing.
Crescencio Ibarra, who raises and sells goats for a living, made his political ambitions known this week via a Facebook post from Marco Sifuentes, who runs the national political strategy and marketing company Merkamorfosis. Sifuentes gifted “Rubí’s famous father” and their family with two political campaigns this week.
Rubí’s dad will be running for mayor of Villa de Guadalupe, and her uncle Pedro will run for the mayor of Charcas—where the party was held on Monday.
Sifuentes noted that, “To be the mayor of a less than 10,000-person town [Villa de Guadalupe], you don’t need a doctorate, or to have gone to Harvard, or another university of its size.”
Indeed, in most communities of this size it would be rare to find someone who has graduated from college. “At least in Mexico, it would be very difficult to find someone of that profile,” Sifuentes said, unsure if Rubí’s father or uncle have completed college, or high school, or junior high—not uncommon in a country where the average national dropout age is eight years old.
“That isn’t a requirement for the job,” Sifuentes added. “Maintaining public services in order” would likely be the candidate’s priority, said Sifuentes. “Nothing out of the ordinary—getting good public lighting and paving streets.”
Sifuentes said he pitched the idea to Rubí’s family over the weekend.
Rubí’s dad, it turns out, used to be a city council member in Villa de Guadalupe, a position now also held by Rubí’s 20-year-old sister.
As for La Joya, the less-than-150-person town where the family lives, life returns to normal.
Many of its handful of residents are among the half-million Mexicans who do not have electricity, the 6.4 million who don’t have paved roads, the 47 million who are affected by lack of storm drainage, and the 70 percent (PDF) of Mexicans in rural areas who do not have running water inside their homes.
But what the townspeople do have now—if not basic infrastructure—is the memory of Rubí, Mexico’s most famous quinceañera, looking forlorn in a sea of opportunists and a dusty $2,000 dress.