La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: entertainment

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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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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Who is winning the drug war's publicity battle?

El equipo the team series mexico televisa

There's a drug war going on in Mexico with serious tangibles -- nearly 40,000 dead, communities ravaged, armed soldiers and protests in the streets. But there's also a less tangible struggle being fought alongside it, a publicity war.

The Mexican government under conservative President Felipe Calderon has taken steps in recent weeks to respond to public discontent with the military-led campaign against drug cartels. In late May, his top national security spokesman, Alejandro Piore, began writing a special blog on the president's website seeking to counter "Ten myths about the fight for security" (link in Spanish).

Also in May came "The Team," or "El Equipo," a television drama that sought to depict in a positive light the men and women of the federal police, which has been beefed up under Calderon's anticrime drive. The project (produced by the media conglomerate Televisa) was panned by the press, performed weakly in the ratings, and has come under attack by Calderon's political foes for alleged misuse of federal police funds and property, including U.S. helicopters acquired by Mexico under the aid package known as the Merida Initiative (link in Spanish).

As The Times' Ken Ellingwood wrote, "Amid sharpening divisions over Mexico's drug war, even a mediocre cop drama can be fuel on the fire." Read the entire L.A. Times article on the show here.

La Plaza tried watching the program -- with an open mind, of course -- but managed only a small dose of the writing and acting, which came close to the realm of "so bad, it's good" entertainment. "El Equipo" had an unusually short run: 15 episodes in three weeks.

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Carmen Aristegui returns

 Aristegui-300x199

Bowing to public pressure, the Mexican radio station that unceremoniously dumped celebrity broadcaster Carmen Aristegui a few days ago has agreed to put her back on the air. In a statement, MVS radio said its reinstatement of Aristegui "responds in a public and transparent way to the requirements of a relevant portion of listeners and citizens" (link in Spanish).

She is scheduled to return on Monday.

MVS fired Aristegui following comments she made on her daily radio program concerning speculation that President Felipe Calderon had a drinking problem. Defending her right to raise such uncomfortable questions, Aristegui told a media gathering last week that her bosses, under government pressure, demanded she read an apology. When she refused, she was fired. (The government denied it had interfered in the matter.)

As one of Mexico's best-known journalists, the incident stirred a firestorm (link in Spanish) among supporters and detractors, and her dismissal was widely condemned by media watchdog groups.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Carmen Aristegui. Credit: Cuartoscuro

Pop star Kalimba freed in Mexico, in a case that grabbed headlines

Kalimba

A judge in a city on Mexico's Caribbean coast ruled there was insufficient evidence to try pop singer Kalimba on rape charges, ordering him released and ending a case that for weeks generated snickering front-page headlines in the Mexican press.

Kalimba had been accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl in a hotel room in Chetumal, in Quintana Roo state, after a night of partying in December. The performer denied the accusations in television interviews. A day after a judge ordered him detained to face the charges, the singer, 28, was arrested in Texas on an immigration infraction and sent to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Kalimba Marichal is a former member of the pop group OV7 and was the voice of Simba in the Latin American version of "The Lion King."

His case was a boon for tabloid headline-writers. The same day that he was arrested in Texas, authorities in Mexico state announced the capture of a suspected hitman in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Damian Ramirez Encinas, also known as "El Kalimba." The tabloid Metro juxtaposed the two arrests with the headline, seen above: "The Original and the Pirated Copy."

But the case also cast attention on Mexico's dysfunctional justice system, as Reuters notes. Kalimba emerged Thursday from the Chetumal jail where he was being held with tears in his eyes, thanking God.

Kalimba was reportedly working on an English-language record in Texas, but the singer hasn't announced it. Watch Kalimba convincingly perform a cover of the Jose Jose classic "El Triste" in a well-known clip, a difficult feat for any vocalist.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The front-page of the Mexico City tabloid Metro, Jan. 21, 2011. Credit: DJgeo.tumblr.com.

Kalimba, Mexican pop star, sought on rape allegations [UPDATED]

UPDATE: News outlets in Mexico were reporting Thursday evening that Kalimba has been detained by U.S. immigration authorities in Texas. Details were not immediately available.

 Kalimba mexico rape allegations

A Mexican judge in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo on Wednesday ordered the arrest of pop singer Kalimba on charges that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl in a hotel room in December.

Authorities in the tourism-heavy state have alerted the attorney general in Mexico City, where Kalimba lives, that an arrest warrant has been issued for him, and law enforcement authorities in other states have also been notified (link in Spanish).

Since the allegations surfaced late last month, the case has snowballed in typical gossip fashion, mixing sex, celebrity and race.

Kalimba was in Chetumal, a city south of Cancun near the border with Belize, on the night of Dec. 18 for a DJ gig at a venue called Buda Bar. He reportedly was accompanied back to his hotel by a manager and two teenage girls who worked at his event as hostesses. At some point early the next morning, alleges one of the girls, age 17,  Kalimba raped her.

Kalimba has maintained in interviews that he did not assault anyone and that the accuser accompanied him to to the airport the next day -- a sign, he says, that anything that happened that night was consensual. Kalimba has not said whether he knew the girls were minors before having them over at his hotel.

Members of the accuser's family, along with the Quintana Roo Atty. Gen. Francisco Alor Quezada, say Kalimba forced the sexual encounter and should face justice. Alor has promised in interviews that Kalimba will face jail time if the allegations are proven. The singer's supporters, meanwhile, have charged on social-networking sites that the two girls who spent the night in his hotel room are out for money and fame.

The case is also drawing attention because Kalimba is afromestizo -- a minority Mexican with dominant African racial heritage in a country where a wide majority of the population is mixed Indian-Spanish. On social-networking sites and in some tabloids, the case has generated jokes and innuendo over Kalimba's race. One tabloid recently used the headline "Se Las Ve Negras!," which can mean he faces a difficult time or is in trouble while also using a word for black or dark, on a cover story on Kalimba's case.

In Mexico, physical difference is often highlighted or mocked in public forums -- a fact many Mexicans say is harmless and not rooted in racism. The jokes often extend into the largest media platforms in the country. In a report last year, The Times' Tracy Wilkinson examined the use of actors in blackface on a popular morning show on the Televisa network during the World Cup in South Africa.

Kalimba Marichal, 28, is a familiar face in Mexican pop. He began working as a child screen actor at a young age, and provided the singing voiceovers for Simba in the Latin American version of Disney's hit film "The Lion King."

He then began performing in a pop group named OV7, alongside his sister M'Balia, and then started a solo career in 2004. Kalimba was born in Mexico City and has a daughter.

The singer's whereabouts were not known Thursday. If charged and convicted of raping a minor, Kalimba would face between 25 and 50 years in prison, according to Quintana Roo state law. The manager with Kalimba during his night at Buda Bar, Gerard Michel Manel Aguilar, is also sought on assault charges.

The singer has defended himself on Twitter, where he's made frequent references to his Christian faith. "Regardless of what happens, thanks to all those who believe the truth," the singer tweeted on Jan. 3. His account has been inactive since the Jan. 4.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican pop singer Kalimba. Credit: Yucatan.com.mx

For the record: A previous version of this post said Kalimba is 27. An earlier version also gave an incorrect headline for a tabloid report.

Rising Mexican banda crooner Espinoza Paz pours on the romance

Espinoza paz grandmother a&r

Halfway through his Friday night concert in Mexico's biggest indoor auditorium, the Mexican banda crooner Espinoza Paz lost his black cowboy hat. It either fell off or disappeared in a scrum of fans who scrambled to touch him during one of several times he left the stage to come near.

When it happened, some in the audience nervously sat up. In folklore as in banda music, a vaquero without his vaquero hat is like Samson without his locks.

Paz didn't miss a beat. The singer kept performing, finishing a two-hour show with his shaved head exposed to the lights above. Along the way, he gained two toy gifts, barrages of kisses and hugs, and the singalong adulation of more than 9,000 fans who sold out the stately Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park.

The venue, coveted by any Mexican performer, is also known as the "Colossus on Reforma."

It was a crowning and emotional night for the singer and songwriter, a milestone in Espinoza Paz's fast rise from undocumented farm laborer in California's Central Valley to teen idol of Mexican regional music.

Expect to hear the name more. With immigrants and their children increasingly building fluid lives, north and south, the genre is all but assured to be a hot-selling scene on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years to come. Paz -- with his rural roots, rags-to-riches story, and handsome looks -- is its golden boy.

"You know, they say the audiences in Mexico City are the hardest to please," a beaming Paz told the crowds in his unvarnished ranchero voice near the end of his set. "So thank you for believing in me. Thank you for showing up. I thought it was just going to be me and my manager."

Near the stage, throngs of women up from their seats were held back by security guards in business suits. They screeched out Paz's name and reached toward the stage. One lucky lady got a two-song serenade: Paz's grandmother, pictured above.

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Three Kings Day in Mexico, a holiday in flux

Reyes magos mexico city

It might be hard to imagine, but the streets of Mexico City these past few days have been more jammed than they normally are with vendors hawking food and cheap gifts. Today, Jan. 6, is Three Kings Day. In Mexico that means the happiest day of the year for boys and girls who wait with giddy anticipation for the "reyes magos" to bring them presents.

And this being Mexico, Three Kings Day is also another healthy excuse to have a big street party.

Consider the scene this week at the Alameda Central, the downtown Mexico City park historians describe as the oldest planned urban green space in the Americas. There are mechanical rides, snack stands, carnival games, and the main draw: enormous stages where children pose for photographs with three live "reyes magos" in elaborate beards and costumes. They're meant to represent the "wise men" who in the Bible followed a star to Bethlehem where the baby Jesus had just been born, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Today, after opening presents, families in Mexico break a traditional rosca de reyes, a circular breadloaf coated in candied fruits.

"It's a beautiful tradition, whether it's here or anywhere else," said Antonia Perez, who watched as her grandchildren played inside huge inflatable spheres floating on pools of water, a popular new "ride" at the Alameda Central reyes magos fair. (Watch original video by La Plaza here.)

It was almost 1:30 a.m. this morning, and kids in sparkly crowns and face-paint were out way past their bedtime with parents in the late-night valley chill, as if they were on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

For almost two weeks since the fair sprung up, the nightly crowds at the Alameda appear endless, waiting in long lines for their photo session with their reyes magos chosen from the 40 stages set up by photographers who were awarded permits to operate in the park. The feria is sensory overload, from the screeching Tilt-a-Whirl rides blasting cumbia and electronic tribal music, to the outrageous reyes magos stages, outfitted with neon lights and (surely unlicensed) replicas of figures from the "Toy Story" franchise.

Here's a little of what it sounds like.

Continue reading »

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

Madonna's new gym in Mexico City lacks permits

Madonna gym ap

Pop superstar Madonna caused a stir in Mexico City this week when she arrived to inaugurate her first gym, but the borough chief where she opened Hard Candy Fitness said Wednesday that the singer's venture lacks the proper permits to operate (link in Spanish).

Demetrio Sodi, who is a kind of mayor in the Miguel Hidalgo borough of Mexico City, said Madonna's gym obtained a permit for the glittery inauguration party it held on Monday night, but has no other permits necessary to open.

"They only let us know Friday that they were going to have an inauguration, and when we had a meeting, they didn't have a single permit ... to operate," Sodi said in a television interview. "No protection program, no license, not even a certificate assuring they have parking."

Madonna chose Mexico City to launch what her website said will be a worldwide chain of gyms containing her "input on every detail." The gym opened in the swanky and exclusive Bosques de las Lomas neighborhood in Miguel Hidalgo, the city's wealthiest borough. Mondays night's inauguration (see photos here) featured a red carpet and was attended by Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard.

Attempts to reach California-based New Evolution Ventures, Madonna's partner company in the venture, for comment were unsuccessful.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A look inside the Madonna's new Hard Candy fitness center in Mexico City. Credit: Associated Press

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