Fake ID Lands Trib in Hot Water

The last time Luis Pelayo rounded up a crowd outside the Tribune Tower was in March 1996, and it was easy to understand what the fuss was about. Mike Royko had written a column that called Mexico a “corrupt narco-state” and a “useless country,” and made the judgment that “there is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans.”

Pelayo and the 2,000 other demonstrators wanted an apology. The Tribune’s first attempt at one hadn’t cut it. “We recognize some people were offended by Royko’s column and regret that they have misinterpreted the intent,” a prepared statement had said. A few days after the demonstration, the Tribune tried again, this time in an editorial. If the paper didn’t quite recant Royko’s column, nevertheless it was “sorry that many Mexican-Americans were deeply insulted” by it and “particularly sorry that the first public statement the company made in the aftermath added to the injury.”

Pelayo is president of a Bensenville-based organization called the Hispanic Council. On August 15 he returned to the foot of the Tower, albeit with a much smaller crowd, looking for another apology. This time the issue was merely a deadline story in which the reporter–as reporters working on deadline sometimes do–had screwed up.

The story led the July 17 edition of Exito, the Tribune Company’s Spanish-language weekly in Chicago. A much shorter version ran the same day in the Tribune’s Metro section. The subject was the matricula consular, a plastic-coated ID card that the Mexican government, through its consulates in the U.S., issues to Mexican immigrants, including those who are otherwise undocumented.

The Exito headline cried out: Matriculas falsas a la venta / Por 80 dolares, el documento ‘infalsificable.’ Or in English: “Fake matriculas for sale / For $80, the ‘unfakable’ document.”

For Mexicans, this was devastating news. The matricula is controversial enough as it is–its critics wonder, “Why give a break to an illegal?” But for immigrants who, for example, want to open a bank account, it’s a godsend. One reason many banks honor it is that the Mexican government has insisted it can’t be counterfeited. A black market in matriculas would make the card worthless.

On July 14 Marquette District police arrested three men in their Cicero apartment, where they allegedly were producing forged documents that they peddled in Little Village. Gerardo Cardenas, an Exito reporter, was watching videotape of the press conference announcing the raid and noted that one of the manila folders into which evidence had been sorted was labeled “matriculas.” He got on the phone. The cop he talked to at the Marquette District said, yes, those were matriculas that had been confiscated. He indicated that a janitor inside the consulate had smuggled them out.

Cardenas had one source and no visual confirmation for the story he was writing. He called the Mexican consulate for comment, and someone there called the Marquette District police commander, Dennis Prieto, who said no matriculas had been confiscated in the raid. The consulate’s press attache Cesar Romero says he then called both Exito and the Tribune to tell them Prieto had contradicted their story.

It would have been a good idea at that point for the two papers to have called Prieto themselves. But all Romero would get for his efforts was a line or two in the July 17 story saying the consulate denied the allegations. “It used to be the consulate was not a very trusted source, but on this date we were right,” he says ruefully. “We let them know before they published the story, but they decided to stay with their source. And their source was wrong.”

“We thought it was a great story,” says Alba Mendiola, a reporter for Chicago’s Telemundo TV station, Channel 44. “So we decided to look into it. We were trying to work something with Exito. They broke the story–we’ll give them the credit.”

Mendiola headed for the Marquette District station and met with the same cop Cardenas had talked to over the phone. She had trouble following him. “He didn’t have much knowledge of what is a matricula, how it’s used, and where it’s issued,” she says. Guarded on camera, the cop opened up after the formal interview. “He told me more details,” says Mendiola. “He said, ‘We found the matriculas at the American consulate.’ I was, ‘American consulate? What do you mean–the American embassy in Mexico City?’ He said, ‘No, the American consulate here in Chicago.’ I said, ‘There is no American consulate in Chicago. What building are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘The one on Dearborn.'”

It turned out, says Mendiola, that the cop was talking about green cards a janitor had swiped a couple of years ago from the Internal Revenue Service offices in the Federal Center. As for the matriculas, the Cicero raid had netted some laminates–the plastic sheaths bearing the seal of the Mexican government–not the card itself. They might have been intended for forged matriculas, but judging from their quality, Mendiola thinks they were probably going to be used for fake Mexican driver’s licenses.

She called Cardenas. “I said, ‘You know what? I think your story is wrong.’ He came right away and talked to the police officer.”

On July 19, two days after the original story appeared, the Tribune ran a correction. “The premise of the story was incorrect,” said the Tribune, acknowledging that no matriculas had been recovered in the raid and that the janitor in question had worked for a U.S. government agency. “The incorrect information had been provided by a Chicago police officer investigating the case.”

The next issue of Exito contained a much more elaborate correction signed by editor Alejandro Escalona, plus an editorial that, in the long tradition of editorials admitting to major blunders, devoted several paragraphs to the paper’s virtues and triumphs before getting to the point.

The silliest thing about Cardenas’s story was the illustration–a massive picture of a matricula consular stamped falsificada. With no forged matricula on hand to photograph, Exito had improvised by Photoshopping a picture of a genuine matricula Romero says someone in the consulate’s documents section had given Exito so the paper could see how well the cards were made. Exito faked its fake.

“What they did was not an apology,” says Pelayo. “It was blaming the police officer for something they did. To acknowledge they make a mistake, but they don’t apologize–it’s like they smack you in the face and they acknowledge, ‘I smack you in the face.'”

A meeting of leaders of various Mexican-American organizations with Cardenas, Escalona, and Exito general manager Digby Solomon failed to provide the kind of satisfaction Pelayo says they were after–an apology as conspicuous as the original Exito article. “Actually, they were very arrogant in their stance,” Pelayo says. “Mr. Solomon said, ‘We have done what we have to do.’ They refused thoroughly the idea of apologizing in the same dimension as they offended us.”

Says Solomon, “They’ve asked for several things. During our first go-round they wanted an apology and retraction. We told them we’d effectively done that. They escalated their demands, and they demanded we publish a picture of a matricula and say, ‘This is real.’ We pointed out that besides their trying to tell us what to do, we weren’t sure it was real.” Solomon says he’s seen a couple of recent news stories that suggest fake matriculas might actually be in circulation in Los Angeles.

“So they escalated their demands and wanted me to fire the editor,” he goes on. “I told them that personnel decisions were something we’d rather make ourselves. And by last week they’d escalated their demands and were demanding the Tribune fire me. What it basically comes down to is it looks like we don’t have a meeting of minds here.”

On August 2 a news release announced that a new ad hoc group to be known as the Mexican Dignity and Rights Defense Movement was planning to call for a boycott by Exito readers and to protest to its advertisers. Pelayo hinted at a conspiracy. “There was an order from way up there in the Tribune,” the news release had him saying, “and the community demands to know why the intention to hurt us, if 80 percent of their (Exito) market is of Mexican origin.”

Pelayo says about 120 people showed up between 4 and 6:30 for the Tribune Tower rally and passed out about 3,000 flyers in English. “I was looking,” says Solomon. “It would seem to me at its peak it was 48 to 50 people. They were well behaved. They played some music, marched around, had some banners.”

The trouble with the rally from Pelayo’s point of view is that the media paid no attention to it. “There’s been a media blockade to this movement that’s incredible,” he says. “Univision has refused to carry anything. Telemundo has run one piece out of four different events we’ve had. The Tribune hasn’t run anything. The Sun-Times hasn’t cared. Other than Channel Two stopping by the demonstration, there’s been no media whatsoever.” And Pelayo doesn’t think Channel Two put anything on the air.

It might be that other media have ignored the story because they don’t think it’s worth reporting (though Exito’s competition, La Raza, has been on top of it). After all, what harm did Exito’s mistake actually do? I ask Pelayo this.

“Well,” he says, “the main harm other than demeaning an official document legally issued by a government– the harm is there are instances where people are complaining that people are more scrutinizing of their matriculas. Banks, currency exchanges, businesses. We are seeing a little uprising in the rejection of their matriculas. We are seeing double the complaints since the article came out. In a typical month we used to get two or three complaints, usually in districts that weren’t accepting matriculas yet. In the last month we have, I think, five complaints.”

Alba Mendiola says, “They said some people were denied service in banks, but we haven’t really found anybody that was denied service because of this article–yet. That’s why we haven’t done any kind of follow-up.”

Solomon says that Exito has more than 150 advertisers and none has complained, and that there were two calls the day the article came out and none since. “If there’s any popular groundswell,” he says, “we haven’t seen it.” That’s why, he says, Pelayo’s boycott doesn’t concern him, even though his newspaper might never be more vulnerable to outside pressure than it is now.

This week’s Exito is the last there will ever be. On September 2 the paper returns in a new incarnation as a daily called Hoy.

“If Exito turns from Exito to Hoy we’ll keep the boycott on Hoy as well,” Pelayo promises. “Unless they apologize formally, Hoy will be born dead.”

Seeing It Their Way

The Sun-Times called it. On June 16 its editorial page predicted that “at some point–in a day, a week, a month–critics who never liked the idea of standing up to terror will begin painting Iraq as a quagmire, another Vietnam.” But, said the Sun-Times, “it is not now and cannot be expected to become one because, unlike Vietnam, the war in Iraq is a war that the United States set out to win, is currently winning, and has every reason to expect to win.”

On August 22 the same editorial page snickered at “a noisy gaggle of New York Times columnists” pushing the notion “that Iraq is turning into Vietnam.” The latest had been Bob Herbert, just the day before. Citing military historian John Keegan as its authority, the Sun-Times listed all the reasons–many irrefutable–that Iraq isn’t another Vietnam.

Had Herbert actually said it was? He’d mentioned Vietnam twice. He wrote, “One of the many reasons Vietnam spiraled out of control was the fact that America’s top political leaders never clearly defined the mission there, and were never straight with the public about what they were doing.” Then he asked, “Sound familiar?”

And in response to Senator John McCain’s call for more troops in Iraq, Herbert said, “We sent troops to Vietnam by the hundreds of thousands. There were never enough.”

Aside from that, Herbert wrote about Iraq as Iraq. The distinctions the Sun-Times drew had little to do with the case Herbert actually made.

But the Sun-Times is learning. “Tracking down terrorists and military renegades is dangerous, time-consuming work,” the recent editorial reasoned. “But it’s utterly unlike unceasing warfare against a people in arms against us fired by a powerful nationalist dream. It’s time for middle-age commentators to let go of the cliches of their youth and to accept the world as it is.”

Yet last June the Sun-Times was still hawking the biggest cliche of all–that the U.S. lost the Vietnam war because it didn’t “set out to win.”

News Bites

8 More chauvinism at the Sun-Times, part one.

From an editorial on August 21: “When you’re dealing with people as horrible and cowardly as the attackers, who care so little for life, it is going to take time to douse their fires of hatred and provide Iraqis, American and coalition troops and international caseworkers alike with the kind of security they demand.” Think of the damage horrible people who hate us might do if they weren’t all cowards.

Part two.

The AL Central standings, as of August 21, according to the Tribune (the correct standings, as you can see if you do the math to four decimal places).


Kansas City 65 60 .520 —

White Sox 66 61 .520 —

According to the Sun-Times:

Sox 66 61 .520 —

Kansas City 65 60 .520 —