EL CARMEN TEQUEXQUITLA, Mexico — Juana Alvarez stood in line with a dozen other mothers in the cramped aisle of a grocery store, waiting for the government handout that keeps her children from going hungry.
Alvarez's husband walked out, she said, leaving her with a newborn and two other children under 7 years old to support.
Part-time work as a maid in Tequexquitla, a farm town of 20,000 people in the central highlands that ranks among Mexico's poorest communities, doesn't come close to providing their daily bread.
"This is the first time I've ever received help," Alvarez, 30, said, as she hoisted a burlap sack containing $30 worth of rice, beans, corn flour and cooking oil into a wheelbarrow outside the shop. "But without it I wouldn't be able to feed my children. This is all that we have."
Despite talk of Mexico's emerging middle class, 45.5 percent of this nation's more than 118 million people remain mired in poverty. Though Mexico this year became the fattest of the world's most populous countries, according to United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, millions still don't get enough to eat.
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“It's clear that the right to food is not fully covered in the whole country," President Enrique Peña Nieto said this summer in relaunching a scaled-back version of the anti-hunger campaign touted as one of his government's key social efforts. "There is hunger in Mexico."
Shortly after taking office nine months ago, Peña Nieto and his team flagged 400 mostly rural and largely southern Mexican corners for the crusade. Vowing to end hunger within six years, they cobbled together the disparate efforts of state and federal agencies into a new framework and called it new policy.
Critics dismissed the campaign as a politically motivated scheme that ties aid to votes.
"What's announced so far generates more doubts and worries," Oliver Azuara, a University of Chicago-trained economist, wrote in a widely cited condemnation of the campaign for Mexico Evalua, a non-partisan think tank. “There are no magic shortcuts or remedies to eradicate poverty. There are risks in going back to openly politicizing this.
“If we go back to forming clients rather than citizens we are taking a step backward,” Azuara said.
The critics' suspicions seem well founded.
Operatives of Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were caught this spring linking the aid to votes in Veracruz and others of the 14 states that held local elections in July. In parts of southern and western Mexico where violence is widespread, the army has been put in charge of the campaign.
“They want to get rid of hunger and they begin with these guys?” Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer with the Tlachinollan human rights organization, said as he eyed squads of soldiers deployed for the effort in the violence-torn mountains of southern Guerrero state. “It’s more of a counter-insurgency campaign than an anti-hunger campaign.”
When opposition leaders cited the ruling party’s shenanigans and threatened to withdraw their support for the president’s key economic and social reforms, the government put its poverty crusade on hold before the elections.
Now it's back in gear with a message of democracy rather than dependency.
“What we are achieving through this is to empower the people,” said Nydia Cano, the 27-year-old lawyer who heads the anti-hunger crusade's efforts in Tlaxcala, a tiny state a few hours drive east of Mexico City that includes three of the 80 communities now targeted. “It's going to make people feel secure. They have leaders who don't let them think, don't allow them to participate. The idea is for all of them to manage the program themselves.”
There are many places in Mexico far poorer than Tlaxcala. Practically all of the state got electricity decades ago. Most communities have water and sewage systems and paved highways, connecting them to the larger cities.
Still, Tequexquitla, a small town center surrounded by peasant hamlets coaxing corn and beans from dry fields, knows poverty well. Government figures rank nearly half the township's people as poor, about a fifth of them unable to achieve minimum well-being, without enough daily food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Locals have long emigrated, both to Mexican cities and the United States, for decades.
"We wish there were more work here,” said Eduarda Espinoza, 55, who grew up illiterate in a village of 100 people a few miles from the town center. “The government helps us but we also have to put effort into it ourselves as well. Imagine if the women here had a factory where we could work.”
German car maker Audi is building a plant just 12 miles down the road. But few of Tequexquitla's residents have the skills required by the factory, which will hire nearly 4,000 workers. Though many of the local men are experienced construction workers, the plant's being put up by unionized outside labor.
“They don't have work for us,” said Artemio Cantero, 43, the elected representative of La Soledad, a cluster of several hundred families a few miles from the town center whose small farms are all about one bad harvest shy of crisis. “We need all the help we can get.”