Fishing for Peje: The Search for Mexico's Living Dinosaur

A fish whose anatomy has barely changed in 100 million years is a local staple in the Mexican gulf coast. But the humble peje is also becoming a political flashpoint.

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(Nathaniel Flannery)

Guadalupe Jimenez stands with his knees slightly bent, dipping his paddle and pushing through the water in smooth, silent strokes. The sky is dark. Guadalupe, or "Don Lupe" as he's known on the small island where he lives, looks out over the still, glassy water. "Here the current runs more," he says. The water burbles as it streams past thin trees. The boat picks up speed, moving out into the center of the isolated lagoon, located down a dirt road in the lush and green ranch country 45 minutes south of the city of Villahermosa, Mexico. The area, in the Atlantic coast state of Tabasco, is famous for being home to the pejelagarto, an ancient species that still swims slowly through the region's lakes and lagoons, making its way into fishermen's nets and onto dinner plates throughout the state. Don Lupe hopes to catch one.

* * *

On the outskirts of Villahermosa, Lenin Arias, a mid-career biologist who studies the peje, stands next to a bubbling tank that contains a few large fish, inside a laboratory at the Juarez Autonomous University of Tabasco. Lenin and his team are working to study the genetic code of the fish, which is being over-fished since the industry, so important to the local economy and culture, is not regulated. The scientists are also developing techniques for in-tank feeding and care that could be used to help create commercial fish-farming operations to supply peje for human consumption.

"In [Tabasco] culture, peje is an ancient fish," Lenin explains.

"It's part of our tropical cuisine," he adds. In the wild, the fish "is over-exploited, but it's not regulated," Lenin says. The peje, a 100-million-year-old species, has a long history in the region. It is a living fossil. People in the area place a tremendous level of importance on the fish and even refer to each other as "pejes." Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a two-time Mexican presidential candidate who grew up in Tabasco, is known across the country as "El Peje."

In the 2012 election, Lopez Obrador surprised supporters and rivals alike when he refrained from attacking Enrique Peña Nieto, a controversial young politician who eventually won the July 1 election. "In the second debate, [Lopez Obrador  acted like a pejelagarto, very tranquil," Lenin explained, laughing.

Inside a tank at Juarez Autonomous University, a few gray, spotted fish circle lazily in the water. One fish, almost a yard long, lets out a bubble of air as it swims near the surface of the water. Its long sloping snout pokes out into the air. Its sharp teeth are hidden. "They're carnivorous, but easily hunted," Lenin explains. "They're very docile," he adds.

Local fishermen sometimes call them "dinosaurs." A gene buried within the fish's genetic code prevents it from mutating. The peje fish Lenin studies are more or less the same as their predecessors who swam through the same lagoons millions of years ago. As a species, "they're older than oysters," Lenin explains. They look like fat, legless alligators with scary, pointed jaws. "The teeth are like saws," Lenin says. The fish do not fight each other in the tank and they do not attack swimmers in the region's ponds. "As a primitive, carnivorous fish, they should be violent but they're not," Lenin says.

"They don't have the capacity to attack because their bodies are heavy and they don't have the ability to move rapidly," Lenin said.

It's only when they are caught that they become animated. "Then they fight, they move a lot," Lenin says. Local fishermen, many of whom have been bitten by a struggling peje, whack the fish with a club or stab them with a harpoon once they pull their nets into the boat.

Juan Carlos de la Cruz, a twenty-two year old lab assistant wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts and sandals, dips a net into one of the tanks.

He scoops a yard-long, slow-swimming peje into his net. As he pulls the net upward, the fish's fat body tenses, and then thrashes furiously, folding and snapping. Juan Carlos lowers the net and the peje, now calm, slithers out, swimming down into the tank's water.

"We call them stupid [because] the fishermen can catch them very easily," he says.

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(Nathaniel Flannery)

Tabasco's most famous denizen, Lopez Obrador  started his career working as a political organizer for Peña Nieto's party, the PRI, building a grassroots network of supporters among the residents of marginalized communities in the isolated corners of the state. He maintains a strong emotional connection with the people of his state and has stubbornly refused to evolve along with other leftist politicians in Latin America. While left-wing firebrands such as Lula da Silva in Brazil and Alan Garcia in Peru, as well as socialists such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, have built broad coalitions by tempering their rhetoric, embracing orthodox economic policies, and financing a broad array of social programs, Lopez Obrador has remained fiercely nationalistic and anachronistically anti-capitalist. To his supporters, he is a beloved and charismatic leader, but his timeworn economic proposals discourage many moderate voters from taking him seriously.

Rather than focusing on his expertise in managing social programs, a task he handled with aplomb while mayor of Mexico City, Lopez Obrador said "We're going to change the economic policy [because] it hasn't worked for the people" and told voters that "Real Change Is in Your Hands." At his final campaign speech in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador told the crowd that if elected president, he would ensure that Mexico would "produce what we consume," a protectionist economic argument that has long-since lost favor among Mexico's technocratic policymakers from the country's PAN and PRI parties. During his campaign, Lopez Obrador crisscrossed Mexico by bus, holding rallies and speaking out to the segments of the country's society that have been left out as the economy modernizes. In Tabasco and many other parts of the country, "El Peje" maintains a following of ferociously loyal supporters. "It is an honor to be with Obrador!" the crowds chant at his rallies.

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(Nathaniel Flannery)

Inside the Pino Suarez fish market in Villahermosa, Tabasco's capital city, vendors stand behind tables heaped with fresh vegetables, meat, seafood, and spices. Standing next to a pile of slimy, freshly caught peje fish, Reyes de la Cruz, an elderly man with a round belly and a serious demeanor, who leads the city's fish and shellfish vendors union, explains simply "we buy the product and sell it to the public, the restaurants. It's a tradition." A stack of small, eight-inch-long smoked peje sit on the board. There are only two fat, four-foot-long pejes on display.

After 35 years working in the market, he's still an avid fan of the fish.

"Of course, it's the best!" he says, smiling, his eyes flickering behind his black-rimmed glasses.

The most common way to cook it is to rest it on a grill above hot charcoal embers. "It's so flavorful," Reyes says. Cooked whole over the coals, the peje takes on the texture and taste of smoked trout. Diners peel away the tough scales, which hold the meat like a burned hard taco shell, and scrape chunks of white flesh off the clear bones. Most restaurants serve it with lime juice and thick slices of hot habanero peppers.

Reyes likes eating peje, but doesn't fish. "It's risky," he says. Carmen Hernandez, a 72-year-old fisherman gave up going out in the boats and now just sells peje at the market clarified, "they're not aggressive... just when they're in the net they get mad."

* * *

Speaking quickly and confidently as his timeslot expires, Enrique Peña Nieto, the young front-running candidate, with his black hair combed and gelled, looks directly towards the camera and says, "It's the moment to take the road to peace and growth."

The moderator interrupts. "Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has the floor, get on with it, Andres Manuel," he says, shuffling his papers on the table in front of him.

Lopez Obrador  with his gray hair swept to the side and his tan tie fastened awkwardly under his loose fitting white shirt, looks out at the cameras.

"Good evening," he says, swaying from side to side slowly, his mouth hanging slightly open during the break between his sentences. "We're just a few days away from," he pauses to lick his lips, "achieving a great transformation to the public life of [this] country." His mouth cracks open into a barely perceptible smile.

"For the good of all and the glory of Mexico," he continues, nodding his head slowly and pushing his hands in front of his body.

"It's going to be a TRANQUIL change...with ORDER," he says, snapping his neck and enunciating his words.

* * *

Just before midnight on July 1, after the preliminary vote count, as Peña Nieto celebrated his victory inside his party's headquarters, Lopez Obrador, his face bloated, his eyes puffy, stood alone in front of a podium and slowly and slowly adjusted the microphone.

"The posture that I assume," he said, pausing and looking down at his notes, "is that of -- " he paused again, jerking his head backwards. "Waiting," he finished, nodding his head.

A few of people in the audience clapped their hands.

Behind the podium, a splotchy banner announced, "Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador  PRESIDENTE: 2012-2018."

* * *

On July 7, tens of thousands protesters marched down one of the main streets in Mexico City, calling the country's recent presidential election a fraud, and denouncing the return of Peña Nieto's party, the PRI.

The crowd, forcing its way down a main avenue towards the main plaza in Mexico City's center, chants "no more fraud!!!" One marcher holds up a sign that called the IFE, the "Electoral Fraud Institute."

Newspapers, on sale on the sidewalk stands and convenience stores alongside Reforma Avenue, explain that Mexico's election regulator has confirmed that Peña Nieto received 38 percent of the vote. Lopez Obrador, "El Peje" from Tabasco, garnered only 31 percent of the vote.

In the crowd, a band of teenagers with spiked and gelled hair and black clothing hold up flags that display the logo of the anarchist movement.

One protester holds up a sign that says, "In a Dictatorship Revolution is a Right."

"Fraud! Fraud! Fraud!" the crowd chants.

* * *

Although the PAN and the PRI are increasingly swimming in parallel, proposing nearly identical economic platforms, Lopez Obrador has led his supporters in a different direction. While both the PAN and the PRI have co-opted the type of ambitious social programs traditionally promoted by left-wing parties, Lopez Obrador has refused to change his economic arguments to account for Mexico's evolution. Over the last twenty years, the country's economy has shifted away from inefficient protectionism and become an exporter of aerospace technology, vehicles, telecom equipment, and engineering services. During an interview in his office, Hector Murgia, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez, an industrial city that sits just south of the Texas border, told me that Juarez used to be a destination for "the poorest of the poor" who came north from isolated towns and cities in underdeveloped parts in southern and central Mexico to find work in factories along the border. "Now," he said, "the city focuses on heavy and semi-heavy industries."

PEJE 5-200.jpg.jpg(Nathaniel Flannery)

Mexico is now competing in global markets in a number of high-tech export sectors. Mexico's economy grew by 5.5 percent in 2010, the fastest rate of growth in a decade. In 2011 and 2012 Mexico reported higher GDP growth than Brazil, a country that has long been viewed as the economic juggernaut of Latin America. Inequality and poverty, two of Mexico's oldest and most entrenched problems, have not been eliminated, but the fact that two thirds of the electorate voted for the PRI and the PAN, two parties with similarly orthodox economic platforms, should serve as an indicator that most voters are optimistic about the potential of the country's current economic policies. Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America researcher from the Americas Society, a think-tank in New York, explained that the 2012 election result "basically signals the extent to which a large segment of Mexican voters are comfortable with the gains they have made in recent years and don't want to risk uncertainty and potential economic upheaval which [Lopez Obrador] represented to many."

After two failed presidential bids, Lopez Obrador is still fighting against the currents of popular opinion. In 2006 after narrowly losing the presidential election, Lopez Obrador called his supporters out into the streets. He staged a similar protest in 2012. On August 31, 2012 Mexico's electoral court dismissed Lopez Obrador's complaint of electoral fraud. "There is no proof of vote-buying, there is no proof of coercion," Judge Flavio Galvan Rivera told the tribunal. Lopez Obrador  refused to accept the tribunal's decision, calling the judges "people without conviction." A few days later, he announced that he was breaking ties with his party, the PRD, to form his own political movement. "We are fighting for ideals...It is a matter of honor," he said. In November 2012, a few weeks before Peña Nieto took office, Lopez Obrador told a Mexican journalist, "the citizens are going to keep helping. There are a lot [of people] who want a real change and know that there are no options in the PRI [and] the PAN."

"El Peje" has written a new book. It is called Don't Say Goodbye to Hope.

* * *

Don Lupe shows the white scars on his hands. They remind him that the lazy Peje fish can be dangerous once it is pulled out of the water. Out in an open lagoon, as the sunlight peeks through a pink corner of the horizon, breaking the darkness, we come to a stop, resting against a stick that has been planted deep into the lake´s muddy bottom. Don Lupe, who injured his leg playing baseball 30 years ago, grips the green net and pulls it in. "It's 75 meters," long he explains as he works. A 15-inch-long silver fish drops into the boat. Don Lupe yanks in the net, pulling it up into the boat in smoothly, deliberately. Tangled in the nylon strings, small, black, fish wriggle at his feet.

There's no peje in the net. Don Lupe hasn't caught a big one in two weeks. He keeps pulling, standing carefully in the narrow boat. Finally, a two-foot long fish flops heavily onto the skiff's floor, its bright white belly visible in the low light.

"It´s a peje," Don Lupe says, the corners of his mouth curling into an almost imperceptible smile. "It´s fresh, but dead," he says. He pulls the net in.

Back on the shore, Don Lupe puts on white rubber boots and a leather glove and starts pulling the fish out from the openings in the net, using an awl that he keeps on a string around his neck to help him. One at a time, he pulls out the carcasses of several dozen dark fish and hurls them back into the lagoon. "Devil fish," he explains.

The peje lies stomach-up in the net. Don Lupe holds up the fish, still wrapped in a web of nylon strings. It weighs "a kilo and a half," he says.

He pauses, pulling the strands of the net over the fish's slimy red fins, looking at the peje's rough scales and alligator mouth. The fish is still and its sharp teeth are clamped shut. "Sometimes they really move when they are in the boat," Don Lupe says. "A big pejelargarto is so dangerous it can hurt your stomach. One bit me in the leg... it really hurt," he adds.

PEJE 4-200.jpg.jpg(Nathaniel Flannery)

He slips a long strip of tree bark into the fish's gill and hangs it over a tree branch. A man named Moses in an orange t-shirt walks by, "how lucky you are to find one, and such a beautiful one," he comments. "Will you sell it?" he asks Don Lupe.

"Well yeah," Don Lupe says.

"How much does it weigh?" Moses asks.

"More than a kilo," Don Lupe responds.

The vendors in the city will pay him 50 pesos for it, about four U.S. dollars. Until fish farms start winning over consumers, Don Lupe and his peers will continue to serve as the sole suppliers for the Pino Suarez market. The peje, so important to Tabasco's culture and so woefully unable to fight off attackers, will continue to try and fend for itself.

Don Lupe sits on the side of his skiff and nods at his catch for the day. "I thought there weren't any big ones [now]. It's a rarity," he says.

Meanwhile, "El Peje," Lopez Obrador, continues to contest the election results and fight for his place in Mexico's history.

"He's still a tough guy. He still might get to triumph. Anything's possible," Don Lupe says. Smiling, he lets out a slow, quiet laugh.