La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: breaking news

'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped


Two people jailed in Mexico's Veracruz state and charged with terrorism because of a series of alarmist tweets were freed Wednesday. Authorities dropped the charges, and the pair walked out of prison to cheering supporters.

"Thank God that freedom of expression won," Maria de Jesus Bravo, a local journalist and radio commentator, said to the crowd (link in Spanish). She and Gilberto Martinez Vera, a math teacher, spent nearly four weeks in jail after they sent out Twitter messages about a supposed attack on a primary school by drug gangs. 

Authorities contended their messages sowed panic among frantic parents. The pair was arrested and charged with terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carried a penalty of up to 30 years in jail.

The case outraged human rights and free-speech advocates and cast a spotlight on Mexicans' increasing reliance on social media networks for information about violence in their hometowns -- and its potential for abuse. With traditional journalists and other sources of information often silenced by intimidation or bribes, microblogging sites sometimes fill the void. But they also often spread false rumor.

The lawyer for Martinez and Bravo, Fidel Ordonez, confirmed the decision of state authorities to drop all charges.

"We hope that this case serves as a watershed in opening the debate, in political, social and academic circles, over the reach of the right to free expression in current times, and with the technological tools that modernity offers," the lawyer said in a statement provided to La Plaza.

The case became something of an embarrassment for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte. On Tuesday, he pushed through a new law that would allow prosecution of rumormongers on the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. This seemed to open the door to releasing Bravo and Martinez.

Early Wednesday, Duarte, dealing with a new crisis of 35 slain men and women dumped in Veracruz city, announced that the charges against the two tweeters would be dropped. Although there was the chance that they might face prosecution under the new law, Veracruz Interior Secretary Gerardo Buganza said that would not be the case.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Maria de Jesus Bravo and Gilberto Martinez walk to freedom. Credit: EFE.




Cuban court upholds jail sentence for American Alan Gross


Cuba's highest court on Friday upheld a 15-year jail sentence for American sub-contractor Alan Gross, ending his legal recourse in a case that has stoked tension between Washington and Havana.

Gross, a resident of Maryland, was arrested in 2009 after he took communications equipment to the island nation as part of a project funded by USAID. Cuban authorities view those activities as an effort to destabilize the Communist government. Gross, 62, denied the accusation.

The White House, after the ruling was announced, demanded that Gross be released on humanitarian grounds.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Alan Gross shown with his wife Judy before he traveled to Cuba. Credit: Associated Press.




U.S. citizens in Ciudad Juarez prison lose appeal against drug convictions

Quijas huckabee us citizens juarez reuters

Two U.S. citizens serving time in a Mexican border prison for what their supporters call a bogus drug-smuggling convictions have lost their final appeal for freedom.

A Mexican federal court ruled on Tuesday that Shohn Huckabee and Carlos Quijas, both of El Paso, will remain behind bars in a case that began with a December 2009 incident. They were stopped by Mexican soldiers in Ciudad Juarez and two suitcases of marijuana were found in their truck. They were arrested, taken to a remote location to be questioned, and then handed over to civilian authorities, who later found the men guilty of carrying drugs with the intent to sell.

The Americans' families and lawyers -- as well as three witnesses -- claim the soldiers planted the drugs in their truck and later tortured the men. Mexico's military denied the torture accusations. The case has been described as another example of the failings in Mexico's broken justice system

Huckabee's father, Kevin Huckabee, told the El Paso Times that losing the appeal was especially disappointing because he said a magistrate judge seemed sympathetic to his son's claims in an informal conversation. Additionally, other Juarez inmates seeking "amparo" appeals had been granted their release recently, he said.

"The only difference I can think of is that [Huckabee and Quijas] are American," the elder Huckabee told the El Paso paper. 

Ciudad Juarez has the sad distinction of being the site of the worst drug-related violence in Mexico as well as one of the largest concentrations of human-rights abuse claims against security forces, as La Plaza has previously reported.

Mexican and international human-rights organizations say the Mexican military has often planted drugs or evidence on citizens in an effort to mark up arrests and convictions. Gustavo de la Rosa, a prominent human-rights lawyer in Ciudad Juarez, has said he knows of 70 such cases in the city alone. 

Despite concerns over abuses, Mexican soldiers continue to run checkpoints along the border looking for drugs.

In another such case, supporters claim Ana Martinez, an elementary school teacher in El Paso, had 105 pounds of marijuana planted in her vehicle by the military before she crossed the border to work one morning in late May.

The case highlights the risks faced by binational motorists like Martinez who are enrolled in a U.S. rapid border-crossing program known as Sentri. Smugglers have been known to stash drugs in Sentri-enrolled vehicles without drivers' knowledge. Martinez, 35, is now behind bars and awaiting trial. She is teaching English to fellow inmates in the meantime, the El Paso Times reports.

Huckabee, 24, and Quijas, 37, meanwhile, have three years remaining to serve on their five-year sentence.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: U.S. citizens Carlos Quijas, left, and Shohn Huckabee, in prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Credit: Alejandro Bringas / Reuters

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, 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

Officials retake prison from rioting inmates in the Dominican Republic

Prison guards using rubber bullets and other means fought back rioting inmates Wednesday to regain  control of a lockup in the Dominican Republic, an official said.

The guards managed to keep the prisoners from controlling a cellblock at San Felipe prison in the northern province of Puerto Plata, the Associated Press reported. Dozens of inmates had reportedly electrified their cell doors with wires.

The melee left sixteen inmates belonging to the Nacion Los 42 gang wounded, said Ismael Paniagua, penitentiary security director. No fatalities were reported.

— Emal Haidary

CUBA: Jimmy Carter arrives on 3-day visit



Former President Jimmy Carter is on a three-day visit to Cuba amid speculation he may try to win the release of a 61-year-old American convicted by a Cuban court of activities aimed at undermining the Communist-led government.

Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, arrived in Havana on Monday with his wife Rosalynn. He is expected to meet with President Raul Castro and other Cuban officials. His visit is attracting a bit of local news coverage, including by Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, which mentioned Carter's "genuine interest" in improving ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and by the Havana-based news agency Prensa Latina, which recalled that it was the Carter administration that first eased restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans (both links in Spanish).

Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who says he was providing Internet equipment to Cubans, was sentenced this month to 15 years in prison, in a case that has further strained relations between Havana and Washington, especially on the issue of human rights. Over the last few months, the Cuban government has released all of the dissidents arrested in a 2003 crackdown.

Carter, on his second trip to Cuba, is the only U.S. president, sitting or otherwise, to have visited the island since the 1959 revolution.

— Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez greets former President Jimmy Carter at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Gonzalez / Granma.


At least three drug groups are fighting for control in Acapulco, Mexico


With a weekend death toll of more than 30 victims, including 15 who were found decapitated, the Mexican resort city of Acapulco is facing its most gruesome levels of drug-related violence since the start of the drug war in 2006. Authorities in Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, said that in all 31 people died violently in or around the city on Saturday and Sunday (link in Spanish).

Reports said decapitated bodies were found with messages indicating that the killings were ordered by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and Mexico's most-wanted man.

If Sinaloa hit men are indeed active in the Acapulco area, it would suggest a likely escalation in future violence for a city that has seen drug-related killings soar since the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the capo who had controlled the valuable trafficking port.

Beltrán Leyva was killed in an operation led by the Mexican navy in December 2009. Like previous deaths or captures of high-profile drug lords, the sudden absence of a criminal figurehead in the region resulted in a scramble for control among splintering or rival groups. (The same phenomenon, for example, occurred in the Tijuana border area after the deaths or captures of capos in the Arellano Felix cartel.)

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Argentina: Former dictator gets life in prison

Jorge videla court reuters

A former Argentine military dictator was sentenced Wednesday to life in a "common prison" for the torture and killing of 31 dissidents during the nation's so-called Dirty War in the 1970s and '80s.

The sentencing of Jorge Videla, center in the photo above, signals one of the harshest finishes for leaders from a period in which military juntas seized control of several Latin American nations -- often with U.S. aid -- in attempts to suppress rising leftist or Marxist threats to power.

Tens of thousands were killed or "disappeared" in Argentina after the coup against Isabel Martinez de Peron in 1976.

Other former officials from the military junta, including former Gen. Luciano Menendez, were also sentenced Wednesday in a federal courtroom in the city of Corboda. The men had defended their actions as measures taken against "terrorists" and "armed combatants" threatening Argentina's government. Three decades later, it is normal for Argentine news reports to refer to charges against former junta members as examples of "state terrorism" (link in Spanish).

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Aeromexico flight attendants held in Spain after cocaine shipment found in luggage

Three Mexican flight attendants have been detained upon arriving in Spain after authorities discovered their luggage contained 140 kilos (308 pounds) of cocaine (link in Spanish). They were identified as three male employees of the Aeromexico airline.

Aeromexico said in a statement Thursday the men were traveling as tourists on non-corporate tickets, and that they've been fired. The three men were found in possession of Aeromexico flight attendant identifications after they were stopped by Spanish anti-drug agents at the Barajas airport in Madrid, Spanish authorities said. They raised suspicion for traveling with identical luggage, the authorities said.

The specific flight number and where it originated within Mexico was not immediately released.

In a statement, the Spanish national police said it was the largest drug shipment ever confiscated at Barajas. The detained men were "taking advantage of their employment as airline flight attendants in an attempt to introduce the drug into our country," the statement said (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega dubbed 'Chavez Mini-Me' in leaked U.S. cables

Daniel ortega hugo chavez

The president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, has received almost $1 billion in aid from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela -- sometimes in "suitcases full of cash" sent from Caracas -- a relationship that prompted a U.S. diplomat to dub Ortega a "Chavez Mini-Me," leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show.

Ortega, the cables say, also funds his party's political campaigns with money from drug traffickers and once bribed a prominent Nicaraguan boxer to stump for him in public in exchange for not facing sexual assault charges -- which Ortega himself has faced, as alleged by his stepdaughter.

The batch of new cables, released by WikiLeaks and published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais and other sites, paint a deeply unflattering portrait of the ex-guerrilla leader, asking at one point of Ortega's foreign-policy ambitions: "Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil Wannabe?"

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In Case You Missed It...

Recent News
Introducing World Now |  September 23, 2011, 8:48 am »
'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped |  September 21, 2011, 7:03 pm »
Freedom likely for Mexico's 'Twitter Terrorists' |  September 21, 2011, 11:00 am »



About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson