La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Brazil

The week in Latin America: His defense is cheese

Jonas Larrazabal cash screen grab

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Corruption scandal grows in Monterrey with cheese claim

The mayor of Monterrey -- Mexico's affluent city in mourning over the casino attack that left 52 dead -- has a brother who is apparently a cheese salesman and receives payments at blackjack tables at the rear of casinos. At least, that's how Manuel Jonas Larrazabal, brother of  Mayor Fernando Larrazabal, attempted to explain videos that surfaced this week showing him receiving bundles of cash at Monterrey casinos (link in Spanish).

The videos suggest corruption ties between Monterrey's political class and the casinos that have proliferated there and are considered magnets for organized crime, including the Casino Royale, which was attacked by suspected Zetas in the extortion-related firebombing that shocked the country. Local firefighters say exits were blocked, contributing to the high death toll. The owner of the Casino Royale has fled the country, authorities said.

Jonas Larrazabal, proved not to be a cheese salesman in any capacity, has been detained for questioning (link in Spanish). The mayor said he could not be held responsible for his sibling's actions.

2 female journalists found slain in Mexico City

The attacks on, threats against and killings of journalists that have risen in Mexico's drug war made a troubling entry to the relatively safe capital with the discovery Thursday of the bodies of two female former journalists, found naked, bound, and shot to death in the rough southeastern borough Iztapalapa, reports Tracy Wilkinson in The Times. 

Ana Marcela Yarce Viveros and Rocio Gonzalez Trapaga were linked to the muckracking news magazine Contralinea. Yarce helped found the magazine and was most recently in charge of selling advertising, a crucial role for a publication that does not receive the lucrative government ads that most others in Mexico enjoy. Gonzalez had been a reporter for media giant Televisa and was most recently working independently and also running a currency exchange booth at Mexico City's airport.

Mexico City Atty. Gen. Miguel Angel Mancera made calls to the families of the victims and promised that their deaths would be investigated and solved, and Congress held a moment of silence for the slain women, La Jornada reports (link in Spanish).

2 held on terrorism charges in Veracruz for tweets 

Veracruz is looking to press terrorism and sabotage charges against a man and woman who spread rumors online of an unconfirmed attack on a school, raising a host of questions about free-speech and the role of social networking sites in a drug war that has seen increasing self-censorship in the traditional news media.

The attack rumor panicked parents and prompted admonishing tweets from the Veracruz state government. But should @gilius_22 and @MARUCHIBRAVO spend 30 years behind bars for a few misinformed tweets?

Migrants return to a more prosperous Brazil

Brazil's economy is attracting migrants to return home to cash in on the strong currency and low unemployment rate, reports special correspondent Vincent Bevins from Salvador da Bahia. Brazilians are returning from the United States, Europe, and Japan as those economies struggle to regain ground after the global financial crisis.

"I never planned on leaving, really. I love it there," said Victor Bahia, 25, who had returned from California. "But my mom and everyone here kept telling me that this economy was exploding like never before, and all the work had dried up in the Bay Area. It's the same reason that the majority of the Brazilians I knew there were also leaving."

Gun scandal creeps closer to the White House

Times reporter Richard Serrano in Washington reports today that at least three officials in the White House were made aware of the failed gun-tracking program that saw hundreds of weapons "walked" into and lost in Mexico, fueling drug-related violence.

The officials who received emails about Operation Fast and Furious were Kevin M. O'Reilly, Dan Restrepo and Greg Gatjanis, all national security officials in the Obama administration. The U.S. gun bureau chief in Phoenix, where the failed operation was overseen, sought help from the White House to persuade Mexico's government to let U.S. agents recover weapons south of the border, Serrano reports.

"This is great," O'Reilly replied to one email referencing the gun operation. "Very informative."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An image from a surveillance video that shows Manuel Jonas Larrazabal, brother of Monterrey's mayor, receiving cash from a woman at a casino. Credit: Animalpolitico.com

Zara contractor in Brazil accused of slave labor

Zara store brazil

Brazil's labor ministry is investigating a supplier for the Spanish clothing brand Zara for allegations of slave-labor conditions at sweatshops in Sao Paolo, and is also opening labor investigations against other international companies, reports O Globo, a Brazilian daily newspaper (link in Portuguese, in automatic translation). 

Zara's parent company, Inditex, said it was unaware of what it called "unauthorized outsourcing" for Zara clothing in Brazil. The company faces fines and possible sanctions against future economic activity in the country. Zara maintains more than 1,000 stores worldwide, including retail locations across Latin America, Europe, Asia, the United States and the Middle East.

In Sao Paolo, migrants primarily from Bolivia -- including minors and undocumented immigrants -- were found to be producing Zara clothes in sweatshops with poor ventilation and hygiene and unacceptable fire risks. Workers were being paid a little more than $1 for jeans that would eventually retail at more than $100, and some were locked into paying their wages to human traffickers who smuggled them into the country, reports said. The clothes, made by a supplier identified as AHA, were destined for Zara stores in Brazil.

Brazilian labor authorities are now expanding their investigation by requesting information on work conditions from several other major companies producing clothes in Brazil, including Ecko and Billabong, O Globo reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Zara storefront in Brazil. Credit: O Globo

Cyberattacks strike networks in Brazil, revealing vulnerability across Latin America

Dilma rousseff brasil president Latin America's vulnerability to cyberattacks was laid bare in recent weeks as government networks in several countries were hacked or temporarily shut down, and hackers threatened to go after more.

On June 21, the hackers group LulzSec claimed on Twitter that it had shut down Brazil's federal government portal and the website of President Dilma Rousseff. Both sites were still not loading properly until Wednesday, demonstrating that Brazil was unable to secure the public online face of its government for more than a week.

Websites for Brazil's tax collection agency, statistics agency, army, and state oil company Petrobras were also targeted, reports said (link in Spanish), although Petrobras sought to deny the breach. The attacks have been primarily "denial of service" swarms in which a site is overloaded with users and thus shut down.

Yet reports said hackers have also accessed sensitive information, such as Brazilian military personnel's private data. Brazil's federal IT agency Serpo said in a statement that, in all, 25 attacks were carried out against government sites between June 22 and 26 (link in Portuguese).

According to a Foreign Policy Digest report in February, governments across Latin America remain deeply vulnerable to cyberwarfare, with Brazil, with its large economy and population, said to be particularly at risk.

Worldwide hacker groups such as Anonymous now appear to have cells in various Latin American countries and have carried out or threatened cyberattacks on government sites, usually announcing their plans via Twitter and YouTube. Two weeks ago, hackers shut down the Colombian Senate's website for a day (link in Spanish). On Tuesday, Anonymous shut down the website of Argentina's Senate in protest of a proposed tax on digital consumer products. The site was still not loading properly as of Thursday morning.

Attacks were also threatened on government or industry sites in Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico, although these did not appear to be carried out. Anonymous had said it would strike Peru and Chile an an operation called "Andes Libre" for what it said was those governments' monitoring of social networking activity, while Anonymous said it would go after Venezuela and Nicaragua for those leftist governments' support of Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

LulzSec appears to have had a short lifespan, calling it quits after 50 days of activity, reports The Times.

Twitter accounts tied to supposed Anonymous cells in Latin America, however, remain active, with a threatened attack looming Thursday against a government-private development project in Mexico called Iniciativa Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. Credit: Europa Press

La Plaza comments switching to Facebook

La Plaza today is switching to a new commenting system.

The system requires commenters to sign in through their Facebook accounts. People without Facebook accounts will not be able to leave comments.

Readers will have the option of posting their La Plaza comments on their Facebook walls, but that's not required.

Readers are welcome to express their opinions about the news -- and about how the new Facebook comments system is working.

Jimmy Orr, the Los Angeles Times managing editor in charge of latimes.com, discussed our online comments and the Facebook system in greater depth in a March entry to the Readers' Representative Journal.

We hope to see your comments on Facebook.

-- The Foreign Staff of the Los Angeles Times

Gender-neutral toilets divide gay community in Brazil

Brazil samba gay toilets carnaval woman madeinbrazil

Boys, Girls, and Gender-Neutral?

A prominent samba dance school in Brazil has decided to make it so, generating questions over the reaches of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people -- even in the simple act of using a toilet.

Unidos da Tijuca, one of the top samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, established separate bathrooms for gay and transgender people at new facilities it inaugurated on Jan. 8. Rio, considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, is preparing for the massive Carnival festival happening in early March.

Media reports in Brazil said that at least one other samba school in Rio already has such "gender-neutral" restrooms. Use of the new third bathrooms at Unidos da Tijuca -- which was named champion of Carnival last year -- is optional, the school maintains.

But with the annual pre-Easter party fast approaching, the new bathrooms have generated a debate among Brazil's gay community over whether third bathrooms help or hinder LGBT rights. Some argue the separate toilets create a "safe space" for gay people, while others say they resemble past practices of segregation among Brazilian blacks and whites.

Claudio Nascimento, head of the Rio state council on LGBT rights, called the toilets "Carnival apartheid" (links in Portuguese, with automated translation to English). The separate bathrooms "go beyond common sense and encourage homophobia," Nascimento said.

Karina Kara, identified as a transvestite at Unidos da Tijuca, told the Globo news network that the new toilets offer haven. "There are things that we want to do in a men's room, or female, and don't feel comfortable," Kara said. "A gay bathroom will be wonderful, because we will be able to do what we want."

Yet voices persist that the gender-neutral bathrooms amount to discrimination against gays. "This can only be a thing from strongly biased men," said Katyla Valverde, identified as a transvestite, according to O Dia.

Homophobia remains a pressing issue in Brazil, where killings of gays have shot up 62% since 2009, noted Agence France-Presse. For Globo's video report on the toilets controversy, in Portuguese, watch here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Unidos da Tijuca dancer performs during Carnival in 2010 in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: MadeinBrazil.typepad.com

Brazil mudslide survivors dig for their loved ones; 700 reported killed

Brazil dog survivors grave mudslides afp

The death toll keeps rising as the mud is cleared in Brazil. More than 700 people have been reported killed in flash floods and mudslides last week in the state of Rio de Janeiro. More than 14,000 are homeless in one of the worst natural disasters in Brazilian history, officials said.

The stories trickling out of the remote mountainous region hardest hit by the slides are both moving and alarming.

With rescue crews arriving slowly due to poor weather and rugged terrain, survivors are digging out their own dead, and bodies are decomposing rapidly, spreading the smell of death. In Teresopolis, a town hammered by the disaster, a lone dog named Leao, pictured above, has kept watch beside the muddy grave of his owner. Dramatic footage emerged this week of a man rescued after being found buried alive beneath the mud. But many of those affected have not been so fortunate.

In the video report embedded below, a man named Manuel Antonio de Oliveira digs on his own for the bodies of his children and grandson. Rescuers eventually pull out one body, but when night falls, he is left alone with the mud and ruins, until his other loved ones can be recovered the next morning.

President Dilma Rousseff, facing the first major disaster of her government, on Thursday promised swift aid for the region after observing the affected areas from a helicopter. The World Bank has pledged $485 million for rebuilding and future prevention plans.

The slides have once again brought attention to lax safety measures in the poorer areas around metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, where low-income families construct unsafe housing along steep hillsides. The government plans on beefing up a national alert system to warn of future flooding disasters.

The threat of more slides, meanwhile, remains high as summer rainfall continues.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A dog named Leao keeps watch besides the muddy grave his owner in Teresopolis, a town hard-hit by mudslides in Rio de Janeiro state. Credit: Agence France-Presse

A growing list of Latin American nations moving to recognize a Palestinian state

Sebastian Pinera Mahmud Abbas gob chile

Joining a widening trend across Latin America, Chile and Paraguay are poised to recognize a Palestinian state based on borders before the 1967 Middle East War, reports in Israel and Latin America said.

In recent weeks, several countries in the region have declared their recognition of a Palestinian state half a world away. Led by the rising global player Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela have all done so, reports the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The move by these governments to recognize a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders appears to be an uncoordinated response to requests that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made to Latin American leaders, reports said. "There is no obvious coordination but quite a few Latin American governments are suddenly recognizing the Palestinian state in a very short amount of time," notes the Latin America-focused blog Two Weeks Notice.

On Saturday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera met one-on-one with Abbas in Brazil during the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president. Abbas attended the inauguration in Brasilia to "thank the presidents" that have recognized the Palestinian state, reported the Chilean daily La Tercera (link in Spanish).

Chile is home to a significant population of about 350,000 mostly Christian Palestinians (link in Spanish). Like many of its neighbors, Chile also has a large Jewish community. A Jewish leader in Chile called the decisions to recognize a Palestinian state "imprudent" (link in Spanish).

Continue reading »

Rousseff tackles economic matters in first day as Brazil's first female president

Dilma rousseff epa

Economist Dilma Rousseff was sworn in as the first female president of Brazil on New Year's Day, special correspondents report in the Los Angeles Times. Rousseff received the symbolic presidential sash from outgoing leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who left office with a resounding approval rating of 87%.

The transition keeps Lula's Workers' Party in power for at least another four-year term, and speculation remains high that Lula might run for the presidency again in 2014 after a single Rousseff term, or wait out two terms under Rousseff and seek the presidency in 2018. That's assuming, of course, Rousseff has as much success in office as Lula had.

Brazil boomed under Lula, becoming the largest economy in Latin America and shedding millions from the ranks of the poor. Under Lula, Brazil captured the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, strengthened its oil sector and asserted itself as a rising global force, even playing diplomatic deal-maker with Iran over its nuclear program -- a move that irked the United States.

Representing the U.S., Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended Rousseff's inauguration in Brasilia. Brazil-U.S. relations remain "in flux," The Times reported.

Rousseff, 63, is a former Marxist guerrilla who survived torture under Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s. She had never held elected office, and won a runoff in October largely because of the backing of her mentor Lula, who campaigned heavily for his former chief of staff. Rousseff remains strongly identified with Lula and his policies, which could help or hinder her early efforts to form an administration, analysts said.

"I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices," Rousseff said in her inaugural speech.

On Monday, the new president moved quickly to cut government spending and open discussions on privatizing expansion projects at the two airports in Sao Paulo, signaling a "market-friendly tone" on the crucial subject of Brazil's economy.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Dilma Rousseff greets supporters after receiving the presidential sash from outgoing leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia, Brazil, on Jan. 1. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Sao Paulo.

Hit movie depicts violence in Rio slums as Brazilian military mounts major anti-gang operation

A new film depicting violent conflicts between gangs and police over control of the slums above Rio de Janeiro is breaking box-office records in Brazil. "Tropa de Elite 2," or "The Elite Squad 2," is a sequel to a 2007 film about military police special forces in Rio state known by the acronym BOPE, or also, the Skulls.

Directed and co-produced by filmmaker Jose Padilha, the film revisits the original "Tropa de Elite" story of a Skulls commander named Nascimento (played in both films by Wagner Moura) as he battles gangsters entrenched in Rio's favelas. By late November, "Tropa de Elite 2" helped push box-office receipts in Brazil 18% above the total from 2009, Bloomberg reports.

You can see the trailer here. Readers are warned that it contains some graphic images.

The movie's release in October came a month before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva authorized a military-led invasion of the Complexo do Alemao slums, sparked by a series of attacks against police stations. Fifty people died in the siege, including three police officers, Marcelo Soares and Chris Kraul reported in The Times. Here's an Associated Press video report on the raid.

Brazil, which is scheduled to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is under pressure to regain control of large sections of territory in its second-largest city that have long been ruled by powerful gangs. From the Times story:

Violence had swept over many of Rio's slums the previous week after state police established units in a dozen favelas, a challenge to the impunity with which many of the drug gangs had operated. The units are seen as the first step toward establishing a stronger state presence in the slums, an effort that will include more schools and health clinics.

Much of the enforcement action is directed at the city's most powerful gang, the Red Commandos, formed in 1979 in prisons, where political prisoners taught common criminals guerrilla tactics.

There are economic implications for Rio as well, Reuters reported, as the city's high crime rate costs it as much as $100 billion a year. Police and soldiers are now in control of Alemao, and services are slowly trickling in to residents. The government announced it would keep soldiers in the slums for at least six months, The Times reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: A trailer for the film "Tropa de Elite 2." Credit: YouTube

New cables reveal frank U.S. views on Latin America, from Argentina to Venezuela

Hugo chavez wikileaks

The global fall-out over the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables continues to trickle into Latin America, where leaders are responding to a variety of disclosures that reveal frank opinions on governments with whom   the United States has sometimes had tense relations.

Here's a run-down of some of the most significant claims or statements made on Latin America in the latest WikiLeaks disclosures, by country. Links below follow news coverage as well as the original cables as published by WikiLeaks or the news organizations that have reviewed them.

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