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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

Who is responsible for the casino tragedy in Mexico?

Monterrey protest

Four days after the deadly casino attack in Monterrey in northern Mexico, the owner of the burned-out Casino Royale has not emerged in public or spoken with authorities.

In fact, little is known about the owners and operators of the casino, despite initial reports (later contradicted) that said emergency exits in the establishment were blocked, contributing to the high death toll of 52. The dead included one pregnant woman, and over the weekend, as families buried their loved ones, another large demonstration against violence and insecurity took place in Monterrey (link in Spanish).

The demonstration ended in scuffles for some as activists made competing calls for the resignations of the Monterrey mayor, the Nuevo Leon state government, and President Felipe Calderon (video link in Spanish).

Nuevo Leon authorities said the investigation into the arson blaze is ongoing. On Monday, Gov. Rodrigo Medina announced the arrest of five men suspected of being involved in the attack. The suspects were identified as Zetas, the drug gang that is seeking control over Monterrey in a campaign that has spread fear and violence in the affluent industrial city.

Authorities said they were eager to speak with Raul Rocha Cantu, a Monterrey businessman identified as one of the owners of the casino. One newspaper said the casino owners had not complied with an extortion demand of 130,000 pesos a week, or about $10,000 -- common deals that often lead to brutal attacks against bars and other businesses in Monterrey.

Another report said Rocha has lived in the United States for at least the last two months, but no location was specified (link in Spanish).

In a series of interviews since Friday, the casino owners' lawyer, Juan Gomez Jayme, said attorney-client privilege would not permit him to divulge where Rocha was or whether he would present himself to Nuevo Leon authorities as they have requested (link in Spanish).

Gomez defended the establishment, saying the casino operated lawfully under municipal, state, and federal regulations. Yet questions were raised almost immediately about word of blocked emergency exits, which were reported by the chief of civil protection in Monterrey after firefighters put down the arson blaze.

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The week in Latin America: Unrest continues in Chile

Chile national strike

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:

1 dead in Chile national strike

A two-day national strike in Chile led to hundreds of injuries, more than a thousand arrests and the death of a teenage boy after violent clashes between workers and students and Chilean police. The strike was the latest large-scale demonstration challenging the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera, Chile's first non-leftist leader since the return to democracy.

What started as a student movement for education reform has grown into calls for a reshaped constitution aimed at what demonstrators call an unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America's most stable economy. Pinera on Friday invited the movement leaders to a dialogue to discuss their demands (link in Spanish). The president's approval ratings have tanked since the demonstrations started.

Casino attack leaves Mexico in mourning

The deadly casino attack in Monterrey on Thursday shocked a nation already too accustomed to narco-related violence. Most of the 52 identified victims were women in their 40s and 50s, demonstrating that gambling in Mexico is a middle-class diversion in a country where the term "terrorism" is now shifting closer to everyday life.

Presidents Barack Obama of the U.S. and Felipe Calderon of Mexico both issued statements condemning the attack, while disdain, sadness, and outrage with the current drug war lit up social networks in Mexico. Read more in recent posts here at La Plaza and in the print version of The Times.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A demonstrator aims a bottle at an armored vehicle in Santiago, Chile, August 25, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

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

The week in Latin America: Don't cross this union boss

Elba esther gordillo ap

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

Poverty grows in Mexico

Mexico's government and political class struggled to come to terms with new figures that showed poverty is steadily on the rise in Mexico, swelling to nearly half the national population. Of those 52 million Mexicans now identified as poor, more than 11 million live in extreme poverty, the independent findings said. "This government like no other has sought to give opportunity to the poor," President Felipe Calderon responded.

Boom times in Argentina?

Argentina's economy, meanwhile, is booming and expected to grow by 8% this year, reports special correspondent Chris Kraul from Buenos Aires. Exports, construction, and auto manufacturing are on a roll. But trouble spots abound, including a rising inflation rate and capital flight of billions of dollars. "No one questions that the economy is running well," one analyst said, "but it's running on steroids."

This is Elba Esther's world

The poor quality of public education in Mexico is considered a key factor in explaining migration to the United Stats and the lure of organized crime for many young Mexicans. For many people, the failure of the schools has a person's name: Elba Esther Gordillo, the flamboyant chief of Mexico's behemoth teachers union. A profile of the hugely powerful Gordillo by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson -- for which "La Maestra" declined to be interviewed -- lays bare how entrenched power hierarchies in Mexico reinforce crushing class barriers for millions.

A 6,000-year sentence in Guatemala

Four former Guatamalan soldiers were handed a stunning sentence of more than 6,000 years each for involvement in a notorious massacre during Guatemala's long civil war. Although the maximum time anyone can actually spend behind bars in Guatemala is 50 years, the sentences sent a strong message to the international human rights community on the pursuit of justice for wartime atrocities in the small Central American nation. The 1982 Dos Erres massacre that led to Tuesday's sentencing involved the systematic rape and brutal beating deaths of 201 civilians. The former soldiers maintain their innocence. 

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico. Credit: Associated Press

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

Colombian cellphone company cancels puppy raffle after PETA protests

Colombia cell phone puppies promotion

A Colombian cellphone company belonging to Mexican magnate Carlos Slim's telecom empire has canceled plans to raffle 200 purebred puppies in a customer promotion under pressure by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Comcel, the Colombian division of Slim's America Movil wireless carrier, will raffle debit cards instead for the promotion planned in Bogota, Bloomberg reports. Comcel had been the focus of a PETA campaign aimed at preventing puppies from being handed over to "unprepared guardians."

The promotion had sparked a controversy in Colombia ever since it was announced in late November. Users on Twitter raised protests and demanded that Comcel halt the raffle, although the company said that the puppies were coming from a top-notch shelter, Cachorros de San Luis, and that participants were free to turn down a puppy if they won one (link in Spanish).

"When people give animals as prizes, they usually don't realize that they might be contributing to the animal homelessness crisis by condoning the breeding of pedigree pups," PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said in a statement.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo credit: Cachorros de San Luis, Colombia

Drug group may have set off oil blast that killed 28 in central Mexico

Residents flee puebla mexico el universal

A powerful pre-dawn pipeline explosion in a central Mexican state left at least 28 people dead on Sunday. The chief suspected cause of the blast is an illegal tap, possibly by the drug group the Zetas, as cartels increasingly attempt to steal crude and gas from state-owned oil lines.

Dozens were injured and 115 homes were damaged in what was described as a series of blasts at a pumping station in San Martin Texmelucan, a town on the main road between Mexico City and the city of Puebla, capital of Puebla state. The smoke plume that rose after the destruction was visible for much of Sunday from neighboring communities as well as in other states.

Witnesses said "rivers of fire" consumed the town's streets.

One survivor recounted how she attempted to rescue her father from a bedroom but a metal door had turned into "gum," El Universal reported (link in Spanish). The flames engulfed homes and incinerated victims, including many children.

President Felipe Calderon arrived at San Martin Texmelucan by the afternoon and met with residents. Here are photos and coverage of the incident in Spanish.

The state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said in a statement that a rapid drop in pressure on the 30-inch pipeline suggested a "clandestine tap" (link in Spanish). The line, named Nuevo Teapa, carries fuel from its origin at a port in Tabasco state on the Gulf of Mexico and heads to a refinery in Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico City, Bloomberg reported.

Pemex loses millions of barrels a year to drug groups -- primarily, the Gulf Coast-based Zetas gang -- in thefts that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The stolen fuel is believed to be trafficked by the Zetas and sold in the United States as cartels seek to diversify their criminal enterprises. The Pemex chief said Sunday that the section of pipeline that erupted in San Martin Texmelucan had been tapped at least 60 times before, and 550 cases of illegal tapping have been reported nationwide.

The Times recently looked at how the drug war has affected production at Pemex in a report in September. Pemex work sites are often attacked and raided by kidnappers, who yank away workers. In May, at least 30 men disappeared from a Pemex plant in Tamaulipas by presumed Zetas.

Sunday's incident joins other major Pemex accidents that have killed scores in Mexico, although previous disasters have been blamed on incompetence and corruption. In 1984, a massive explosion at a Pemex plant in the state of Mexico left more than 500 dead. In 1992, more than 200 died in a leak explosion in downtown Guadalajara.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Residents flee and watch as smoke rises in San Martin Texmelucan, Puebla, after the pipeline blast that left at least 28 dead. Credit: El Universal 

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

Hoping to fly again, jobless flight attendants launch racy calendar in Mexico

Flight attendants mexicana calendar ap

A group of unemployed flight attendants from the defunct Mexicana airline found a novel way to keep travelers' eyes on their case to fly again: a sexy calendar.

The publicity stunt -- in a country where racy calendars adorn untold numbers of workshops and garages -- is meant to drive up interest in getting Mexicana in the air again. The company suspended operations in August after a rapid financial meltdown.

The 2011 calendar features photos of 10 former Mexicana flight attendants in bikinis and aviator sunglasses, posing suggestively before jets or inside a cockpit.

The sexiness aside (for just a moment), the group's calendar is a study in ingenuity. A flight attendant named Coral Perez came up with the idea, telling the Associated Press, "We all needed the money." Perez and her former workmates pitched in their own savings for the calendar's production costs and designed their own outfits.

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