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Category: drug trade

Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

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More Mexico youths die from violence than car wrecks, report says

Juarez drug war big picture kids sedena

As Mexico's drug war grinds on, violent homicide has overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of death of young people in the country, reports the Mexico City daily El Universal (link in Spanish).

Government statistics reviewed by the newspaper show that in 2008 and 2009, the second and third complete years of Mexico's drug war, violent deaths of people between 15 and 29 shot up about 150%. The figures rose almost equally across various narrower age brackets within that group.

Half of those homicides occurred in five states that include some of those worst hit by the current violence: Chihuahua, Baja California, Guerrero, Sinaloa and the state of Mexico, on the border with Mexico City. Violence is now the leading cause of death among Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 29, overtaking car accidents, the report said.

The federal government's database on deaths tied to organized crime shows 1,638 young people were killed in suspected drug-related attacks in 2008, a number that rose to 2,511 in 2009 and 3,741 in 2010 (graphic link in Spanish). 

Poor education and job prospects often pull young Mexicans into the poorly paid informal economy or into organized crime. Citing a congressional report, El Universal reported in June that some 23,000 young people had been recruited into the ranks of Mexico's powerful drug cartels since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels soon after taking office in 2006 (link in Spanish). The same report said the drug war has left at least 10,000 orphans.

Separately, Mexico's drug war appears be changing young people's attitudes toward security and penal measures.

A national survey on "constitutional culture" conducted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico and released in August found that the largest segment of the population that approves the use of torture and death penalty against suspected cartel criminals was between 15 and 19 years old (link in Spanish).

According to the report, that age group has the most hard-line views on security, approving of the killing of suspected drug traffickers without trial as well as the use of torture to gain information from drug suspects.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Young people pose for a cellphone portrait at the incineration of marijuana and other drugs at a military base in Ciudad Juarez in March. Credit: Gael Gonzalez / Reuters 

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

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:

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

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

Terrorism charges for 2 in Mexico who spread attack rumor on Twitter, Facebook

Twitter users jailed veracruz The government of Veracruz state in Mexico has jailed a man and woman on charges of terrorism and sabotage after they published rumors of an unconfirmed narco attack on a school on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook (link in Spanish).

The arrests are sparking outcry from human rights groups and puzzling analysts over the question of whether Mexico is equipped to handle freedom-of-speech cases as they relate to the spiraling violence of the country's drug war.

Twitter and Facebook have become indispensable sources of news on attacks in communities where local news outlets are under the thumb of drug lords or no longer report on violent incidents. At the same time, attacks against or near schools have been reported since the start of the new school year last week, sometimes causing confusion or panic among parents.

In Veracruz, active Twitter user Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) tweeted last Thursday about a supposed attack at a primary school in the municipality of Boca del Rio, next to the city of Veracruz. Martinez Vera's original tweet on the attack said: "They took 5 kids, armed group, total psychosis in the zone." He cited a sister-in-law but later said he had misidentified the school, and then mentioned another, all of which added to the confusion.

Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) reportedly made similar statements on her Facebook account, leading to reports of panicked parents rushing to the school mentioned in their messages. Her Twitter shows inactivity since Aug. 22.

The attack account could not be confirmed by authorities. The following day, Martinez, a teacher, and Bravo, a journalist and former state bureaucrat, were arrested in their homes.

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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.

Continue reading »

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

Calderon calls on U.S. society to curb its drug use

Felipe calderon press conference

The White House on Friday issued a rare statement by U.S. President Obama on the deadly attack against civilians in a casino in northern Mexico, while President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered sharp words on American complicity in the violent conflict that has left tens of thousands dead in his country.

Obama's statement said:

I strongly condemn the barbaric and reprehensible attack in Monterrey, Mexico, yesterday. On behalf of the American people, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this difficult time. 

The president called Mexico's campaign against organized crime groups "a brave fight" and said the U.S. "will remain a partner in this fight." The statement renewed a consistent American commitment since President George W. Bush's administration to support Calderon, in office since late 2006, and his government's efforts against powerful drug cartels.

On Friday, Calderon visited the site of the attack that killed more than 50 gamblers and employees at the popular Casino Royale in Mexico's wealthiest city. Calderon again issued a call to the U.S. to do more to tackle the American demand for drugs and the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.

In the prepared remarks released by the president's office, Calderon said the extortion-related attack in Monterrey was due to one primary factor, "the movement and sale of drugs to the United States." Calderon went on (link in Spanish):

Part of the tragedy that Mexicans are living has to do with the fact that we are alongside the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and at the same time, the biggest vendor of weapons in the world, which pays billions of dollars every year to the criminals who supply them with narcotics.

These ... dollars end up arming and organizing the criminals, and places them in their service and against the citizens.

This is why it is my duty, also, to make a call to the society, the Congress, and the government of the United States. I ask them to reflect on this tragedy that we Mexicans and many other countries in Latin America are living, as a consequence, in great part, to the insatiable consumption of drugs in which millions and millions of Americans participate.

Separately, the Obama administration is facing domestic political pressure over the secret gun-tracking program dubbed Fast and Furious, which resulted in hundreds of weapons being "walked" into Mexico and then lost, fueling drug-related violence. Read recent coverage in The Times of Operation Fast and Furious here and here.

Since 2007, when Bush and Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has sent almost $1.5 billion in aid to Mexico for its fight against the cartels, a foreign-aid package similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia that sought to help that South American nation fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.

RELATED:

Searchers comb torched ruins of casino where 52 died

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Emails to White House didn't mention gun sting

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, along with First Lady Margarita Zavala and top officials, Friday, August 26, 2011. Credit: Presidencia.gob.mx

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Matazetas

The news just gets grimmer in Mexico as the drug war nears the end of its fifth year and claims more and more innocent lives. On Thursday, gunmen burst into a casino in the northern city of Monterrey and set fire to the place, killing more than 50 people, Ken Ellingwood reports in The Times.

The attack was described by the federal government as an act of terror. President Felipe Calderon has ordered three days of national mourning, but no official decree was needed to observe a palpable sense of gloom among ordinary citizens on Friday morning even here in Mexico City, far from Monterrey.

In Mexico's current armed conflict, when a night-life or entertainment establishment is attacked, authorities assume an extortion deal gone wrong. A business owner refuses to pay a hefty "tax" to an organized crime group, or is being extorted by more than one group, a deal frays, and eventually, innocent lives are lost. In other instances, a business might be attacked out of sheer competition between cartels.

In the past year, Monterrey has seen such attacks more than its people probably care to count. In early July, more than 20 people were killed when gunmen assaulted a crowded bar in downtown Monterrey on a Friday night. The hitmen even killed the hot-dog vendor outside.

The violence in Monterrey is presumed to be a result of the localized war between the two major cartels that seek control over Mexico's wealthiest city -- the Gulf cartel and their former armed wing, the Zetas -- which were founded by ex-members of an elite Mexican military unit.

The Zetas in particular are known for their brutal attack techniques, so much so that late last month a new self-described cartel announced its debut with the online video: the Mata Zetas, or "Zeta Killers."

The Spanish-language video link shows a group of men in flack jackets, hooded masks or helmets, and holding high-powered military-grade assault rifles. They stand in silence as a voice-over announces the group's fight against "these filthy Zetas" in the state of Veracruz. The image achieves its goal, striking fear in the observer. The group looks fierce, cold-blooded and trained.

The Mata Zetas identify themselves as a subgroup of the so-called Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. If that's the first time you've heard of that cartel, you're likely not alone. Even journalists these days have trouble keeping track of all the organized-crime groups.

As Mexico's military and federal police seek to arrest or take out top cartel figures, the drug groups inevitably splinter in the subsequent power vacuums, and new self-described "cartels" are formed, although it is practically impossible to know how large or organized the new groups can be. Out of those, subgroups branch out, often seeking to claim new territory or "clean up" against a rival. Since last year, for example, three new cartels have emerged in the battle over the southern port and resort city of Acapulco.

In the western state of Michoacan, a new cartel giving itself the medieval name of Knights Templar has begun terrorizing communities there. That group is said to have splintered off from the fearsome La Familia. As Tracy Wilkinson reported in The Times, the June arrest of the reigning La Familia leader ensures only one thing: "Removing the top capos, which is Calderon's stated strategy, provokes violent power struggles as potential successors compete for their share of the ever-lucrative drug trade."

Yet the U.S. and Mexico governments argue the fight against Mexico's transnational organized crime groups must continue, despite more than 40,000 dead in Mexico alone.

How many more new cartels can form before the conflict runs its course?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Screen-grab of video announcing the formation of the so-called 'Zeta Killers.' Via YouTube

Aeromexico pilot held in Madrid on suspicion of smuggling cocaine

Aeromexico epa madrid spain cocaine

A Mexican airline co-pilot is under arrest in Spain on suspicion of attempting to smuggle 92 pounds of cocaine in his personal luggage on an Aeromexico flight he helped pilot.

The case marks the second time in nine months that Aeromexico employees have been arrested at Madrid's Barajas Airport on suspicion of smuggling cocaine after flying there on Mexico's remaining legacy airline. In December, three Aeromexico flight attendants were arrested after allegedly attempting to enter Spain with more than 308 pounds of the drug between them, as La Plaza reported.

The flight attendants, all men, were traveling as tourists but carrying Aeromexico identification. The recent arrest is considerably more serious. The suspect, Ruben Garcia Garcia, had served as first officer on an Aeromexico Boeing 777 flight to the Spanish capital from Mexico City when he was arrested Aug. 17.

In a statement posted on its website, the airline said it "deeply regretted" the arrest and that Garcia had been fired (link in Spanish). Mexico's federal transportation agency on Wednesday revoked Garcia's pilot license, and the national pilots union said it would not come to his defense (links in Spanish).

Garcia was being held at a Spanish jail while awaiting charges. Federal authorities in Mexico said they were also investigating (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A file image of a pilot and Aeromexico airliner. Credit: EPA

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