A hornet's nest for Obama

Mexico

Miguel doesn't sleep well these days. It's not his conscience - in his view, it was quite reasonable to kill the man who shot him in the head.

"I was taught to return a favour," he says. "It was a small sin."

Miguel is not his real name, but the one he has chosen for the purposes of interview. He wants to be filmed in shadow, which is a shame because it means we cannot show how his brow is distorted by an acute dent in the left temple where the bullet entered, and a wider, shallow one where it exited on the right. He says he was shot by a member of a rival drug cartel, who was owed US$250,000 by Miguel's boss. After 32 days in a coma, Miguel emerged to take his revenge.

His restless nights are the product of a more general anxiety. Now might be a good time to retire, he thinks, but it's hard to change career at this stage because if your enemies don't get you, then your friends will.

"You can change your phone number but your friends know how to find you," he says. "I can't let them down, because we're the same, we're family and you have to respect your family."

Miguel lives in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the state at the centre of Mexico's spiralling drug wars. In early December, the bodies of 13 men turned up at the side of a country road, their hands tied with rope, gunshots in the head and the back. They are believed to have worked for one of the drug cartels whose turf war is tearing Mexico apart. Such killings are an everyday occurrence all over the country, most commonly along the drug routes leading to the US border.

In the past year, nearly 5,400 people have been killed in drug-related murders, more than doubling the previous year's total. Many were de capitated. Others had their tongues cut out. The cartels, which have been weakened by war, are now turning to kidnap, extortion and other forms of organised crime.

"The spiral of violence is a sign of ungovernability which may lead to anarchy," admitted President Felipe Calderón in early December. American pundits have warned that Mexico may become a failed state.

For 70 years, Mexico was governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, which accommodated the drug business. Politicians were paid, drug traffickers plied their trade and violence remained under control. But when Calderón came to power in 2006, he decided to take on the cartels, which were growing more powerful as they were squeezed out of Colombia and pushed north.

"Calderón poked a hornet's nest with a big stick, but he made no preparations for the consequences," says Mario ópez Valdez, a PRI senator for Sinaloa. "Now the angry hornets are out, but no one's wearing protective clothing."

José - again, a pseudonym - drives around Tierra Blanca, the middle-class residential area of Culiacán where the drug traffickers used to live. He likes to show off his huge 4x4 Chevrolet Avalanche, which he drives while drinking beer and talking on the mobile phone to a string of girlfriends. Apparently high on cocaine, he talks at machine-gun pace in narco-slang, somewhat alarmingly taking his hands off the wheel to point out the sights to visitors.

"That's where El Mochomo was betrayed," he says, indicating a house where one of the most famous drug traffickers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in January. Graffiti on the garage door reads: "I love you, Mochomo, I miss you, your girl loves you."

José and Miguel work for the Sinaloa cartel, members of which are believed to have turned Beltrán Leyva over to the authorities as they battled to gain new and more profitable trafficking routes. In response, the Beltrán Leyva cartel murdered the son of the Sinaloa cartel's fugitive leader, Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, which translates as "Shorty".

"That was when the war began," says José. He is sorry to see the streets so quiet, after years in which they pulsated with luxury vehicles and extravagant parties. Many houses are empty, their drug-trafficker owners having quietly removed themselves to the countryside, where they are less likely to be killed.

At the shrine to Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, a trio of guitar, harmonica and singer are playing a narcocorrido, a praise-song to the drug cartels. As drugs are the foundation of Culiacán's wealth, and the present war is bad for business, it is a lament:

Tierra Blanca, you seem so sad now.

Your streets are deserted,

No longer humming with the latest cars,

Nor with the roar of the machine-gun.

Jesús Malverde is a Robin Hood-type figure, a bandit who was hanged by the Mexican authorities in 1909. Once a simple folk hero, he is now worshipped by those who have become rich on narco-profits. At his shrine, plaques in the name of the Beltrán Leyva family, among others, bear legends such as: "Thank you for safeguarding our journey from Sinaloa to California."

Drugs are now deeply embedded in Mexican culture, while corruption runs through the bureaucracy and the security forces. As the violence increases, President-elect Barack Obama may find that he has to deal with war not just far away in Iraq and Afghanistan, but right on his border.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.