La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: environment

Forgotten on election day in Mexico, a flooded neighborhood copes

Ecatepec flooding mexico 2

Sunday was election day in Mexico's most populous state, and as widely expected, voters gave a resounding victory to the gubernatorial candidate with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

But in Colonia Franja del Valle de Mexico, one neighborhood in the state of Mexico, residents did not have the time or the energy to go the polls. They spent most of Sunday piling up the debris of the homes, ruined after a canal overflowed in heavy rains late last week.

With feelings of anger and helplessness, residents of this working-class colonia in the municipality of Ecatepec described a harrowing scene Thursday night when the Rio de los Remedios canal, which runs alongside the area, burst into their houses. There has been no help yet from the government, they said.

"From one moment to the next, we looked out the window, and the water was upon us," said Ignacio Ramirez, 59, a security guard.

"What did I do? I went over the wall to the neighbor's, but the water was already up to my neck. We tried opening the door but the pressure wouldn't let us," Ramirez went on. "The current took us and slammed us against the walls."

Ramirez stood with his family inside their cement-brick home, where the line marking the reach of the flood waters — a brown smudge about the height of an average-sized man — was still visible on the kitchen wallpaper. Their refrigerator, stove, television set, couches, and nearly every other piece of furniture touched by the "black waters" of the Rio de los Remedios were stacked on the muddy street outside.

Food, clothes, personal belongings, all ruined and gone. Cars and trucks in driveways out back were also useless now.

By Sunday the waters had receded, but it was more of the same all over the street. Residents said they felt abandoned by the government, even during a time of year — an election — when officials usually make sure to be extra-attentive to constituent needs.

"This is a no-man's-land," Ramirez said.

Continue reading »

In Mexico, a drought has thrown the reliable rainy season out of whack

Rain clouds downtown mexico city daniel hernandez

On Tuesday evening, this metropolis got some weather that was remarkable for all the wrong reasons.

Clouds gathered up and darkened by late afternoon, and by dusk, cold droplets ended their long journey from the sky on the city's endless fields of parched concrete. Mexico City had been asking for it, and it finally rained. 

Rain in June in Mexico, of course, is not a newsworthy event. The rainy season is usually well under way by now. But this year, due to a national drought, the rainy season is more than five weeks late and counting. A subdued anxiety has taken hold among some residents.

Could it be? we asked. Have the rains finally started?

The answer is a bit of "yes" and also a bit of some troubling "no." Tuesday's storm was deceptive. Chilly and soft, the rain was in fact residual moisture from Hurricane Beatriz, which hit the country's southern Pacific coast over the weekend and eventually made it up to high central Mexico as a weakened tropical depression. 

It was not "normal rain" for this time of year: subtropical downpours that are sudden and brief, hitting like clockwork nearly every afternoon between mid-May and late-October. Except for a freak hailstorm in April, the 2011 rainy season has so far been decidedly un-rainy (link in Spanish). Forecasts each morning have almost become a mocking thing, showing potential rainfall in the afternoon that never materializes, day after day.

Mexico is currently facing a drought that has affected nearly every region of the country, reports the National Meteorological Service. After last year's unusually wet and deadly rainy season, there has been little rainfall since October. According to Martin Ibarra, head of the weather service's long-term forecast office, the drought started in the northeast of the country and spread downward for months, sparking substantial forest fires in Coahuila state and record temperatures everywhere else.

"There are years that the country will be wetter than usual, like last year, and years that will be drier than usual," Ibarra said in an interview. "This is a rain deficit."

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Chile volcano keeps spewing ash, grounding flights across South America

Chile volcano ap june 12

The Puyehue volcano on the border between Chile and Argentina continued to spew ash over the Andes and Patagonia regions of South America on Tuesday. The eruption is now entering its 11th day and shows no sign of stopping.

Flights were grounded from Argentina to Australia and New Zealand as ash clouds that could harm jet engines blanketed the region and moved west across the South Pacific. Flights were also being canceled in Santiago, Chile's capital (link in Spanish), as well as in Brazil and Uruguay.

The Associated Press said "booming explosives echoed across the Andes" on Monday as ash and lightning rose from the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex, which is in southern Chile just west of the border with Argentina. Activity at the volcano began on June 4. Thousands of nearby residents have been evacuated.

Concerns rose this week that the eruption could harm the region's tourism industry as the high winter ski season approaches, reports said. Here's a fresh video report (in Spanish) on the eruption from the Argentine news source Clarin.

See more photos of the ongoing eruption at our sister blog Framework.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The Puyehue volcano emits ash and lightning on Sunday. Credit: Associated Press

A 'Surfing Madonna' appears in San Diego

Surfing madonna daniel hernandez los angeles times 5

Where did she come from? Who made her? Will the city decide to keep her around?

Residents of a laid-back beach community in San Diego County have been gathering day after day before a striking mosaic mural that appeared unannounced on a bridge wall, guerrilla-style, without proper approval. They are curious and concerned. The "Surfing Madonna," as locals have dubbed her, is in danger of being removed by the city of Encinitas.

The mural is a 12-foot-tall representation of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary image believed to have miraculously appeared before an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico City. Guadalupe has been called the "Empress of the Americas," the patron saint of Mexico, and the "unofficial flag of Mexicans." Her image has been appropriated across popular culture and national and religious lines, and is considered a special icon for Southern California as well.

In the Encinitas mural, the Virgin Mary figure appears in her familiar flowing green robe, with her famous downward-cast eyes and slight smile. But this being Southern California, Guadalupe here is riding a white surfboard, with the image's traditional moon-bearing cherub depicted on the board's deck, as if navigating down Encinitas Boulevard and onto the breaks at Moonlight State Beach.

"Save the ocean," reads a message running down the mural's left side, in bright glass pepples.

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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

International human rights court blames Mexican army for torture


Mexico has been hit by another international human rights judgment against its army. In a long-awaited decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against Mexico and in favor of two peasant ecologists who had long claimed they were illegally detained and tortured by Mexican soldiers working at the behest of powerful logging companies.

It is the third such case to go against Mexico this year and was applauded by human rights organizations here and in the U.S. who called for Mexico to submit military abuses to civilian justice.

Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were activists working to protect the mountainside forests in southern Mexico's Guerrero state from often illegal logging by local land barons. They staged disruptive demonstrations and blocked roads. The army arrested them in 1999 in a raid that killed a third member of the peasant movement. The men said they were held incommunicado and beaten on their legs, torsos and testicles until they signed false confessions.

"They threatened us, they said they had our families and would hurt them," Montiel told the Los Angeles Times in this report from August. Although the Mexican human rights commission determined they'd been tortured, a military prosecutor rejected the claims and signed off on the case. The men were convicted on what they say were trumped-up weapons and drug charges. They were released two years later under international pressure but never pardoned. (Montiel received political asylum from the U.S. and lives in California.)

In a 134-page ruling posted on its website Monday (link in Spanish), the court said the Mexican government had violated Montiel and Cabrera's "rights to liberty and personal integrity" as well as their rights to due process and judicial protection. It ordered Mexico to properly investigate the torture allegations and pay Montiel and Cabrera damages. Moreover, it said the military judiciary that handled the case was not the proper venue.

Continue reading »

The L.A. Times' Greenspace environmental blog looks at Chiapas; Cancun talks

More than 190 nations gathered in Cancun this week to try to craft a treaty to reduce carbon emissions. The Times' Greenspace blog is monitoring events, including the Mexican state of Chiapas' interest in joining California's upcoming cap-and-trade market for carbon emissions.

Greenspace coverage includes entries about Chiapas, the Cancun conference itself and a "climate summit" hosted by Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.

- Times staff

Paraguay halts British expedition over isolated indigenous group

Ayoreo man chaco survival

The government of Paraguay has put the brakes on a planned expedition into a remote northern region of the country, fearing that researchers from the Natural History Museum of London could make contact with an indigenous group that wants to remain isolated from the outside world.

The museum had hoped to study the plant and animal life in Paraguay's Chaco, a dry forest region where the native Ayoreo people live in voluntary isolation. Local conservationists and indigenous rights groups warned the government that the Ayoreo's isolation could be compromised by the expedition, despite the planned use of a contacted Ayoreo guide who would have explored ahead to warn residents of approaching outsiders, reports Nature.

The Chaco region, which stretches from the north of Argentina to Brazil, is under threat from ranchers and loggers. The Ayoreo are considered the last uncontacted indigenous group in South America outside the Amazon basin. There are no precise figures on their population.

Continue reading »

World mayors sign climate-change pact in Mexico City

Mexico City mayors climate change summit

Hoping to place cities at the forefront of global climate-change policy efforts, leaders of more than 100 urban centers pledged on Sunday in Mexico City to commit their governments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called Mexico City Pact is a precursor to climate-change talks with world governments opening next week in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. Countries will attempt once more to come up with a binding treaty to rein in global warming after the failure to do so at United Nations talks in Denmark last year.

In Mexico City, mayors and representatives of 138 cities, including Los Angeles, Paris and Johannesburg, signed the voluntary pact that states they will develop and implement local climate-change action plans that are "measurable, reportable and verifiable." The mayors summit was organized by the government of Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, whose efforts to "green" this crowded and polluted megalopolis are considered the most ambitious in Latin America.

Ebrard, who appears a likely presidential candidate in Mexico in 2012, said local governments will be key to reducing the effects of climate change. A majority of the world's population is now living in cities for the first time in history.

"We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won," the mayor said before the summit.

Other cities in the region joining the pledge in Mexico City included Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina; La Paz, capital of Bolivia; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the largest cities in Brazil; Bogota,  capital of Colombia; Quito, capital of Ecuador; and Montevideo, Uruguay's capital (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, center, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, at left, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hold the pact. Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, who also presented his plan on climate change at the mayors summit, is seen in the far rear, third from left (link in Spanish). Credit: World Mayors Summit on Climate Change

Tensions high between Nicaragua, Costa Rica in border dispute

Costa rica nicaragua google maps image

An error on Google Maps that showed a strip of land belonging to Costa Rica in Nicaraguan territory has evolved into a tense international dispute between the Central American neighbors.

The government of Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla sued its neighbor at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, claiming that Nicargua is unlawfully sitting on land on the San Juan River that belongs to Costa Rica, near the river's mouth to the Carribbean (link in Spanish). Costa Rica is also claiming that Nicaragua is contaminating the river.

Nicaragua admitted that it used a Google Maps mistake, since corrected by the search engine giant, to send troops onto Calero Island, a territory it calls disputed. Nicaragua is dredging land there, and is refusing to pull back.

"Costa Rica is seeing its dignity smeared and there is a sense of great national urgency" to resolve the conflict, Chinchilla said, according to reports.

The San Juan River marks much of the eastern border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and has been the source of tension between the neighbors for more than a century. The crisis, now a diplomatic one, is getting complicated.

The Organization of American States told both governments to meet and settle the dispute, and requested Nicaragua remove its troops from Costa Rican territory. But Nicaragua refused to obey. An advisor to President Daniel Ortega upped the ante when he claimed in a television interview that Costa Rica contaminates the San Juan River and not the other way around (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: A screen-grab from Google Maps showing the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Credit: Google Maps


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