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Category: Felipe Calderon

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 

'Mexico has a clear project,' presidential front-runner says

Pena nieto informe pri

The front-runner in Mexico's 2012 presidential election delivered his sixth and final state-of-the-state address in the city of Toluca this week, in an opulent political event that effectively sought to cement Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto as the heir apparent of the resurgent PRI, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"Let there be no confusion," Peña Nieto said in the capital of Mexico state, where he's served as governor since 2005. "Mexico has a clear project, which is contained in its political Constitution. What is missing is an efficient state that can make it a reality, that will put it into practice in the daily lives of all Mexicans."

Those remarks were the most cited in Mexican news reports because they veered close to the air of inevitability that the PRI is trying to establish heading into next year. The governor's address on Monday "looked like an act of acceptance of the presidential nomination," CNN's Spanish-language service said in this report

PRI governors and bureaucrats, business leaders, and figures familiar to the establishment applauded Peña Nieto after his speech inside the Teatro Morelos, as seen in this video report in Spanish. The attendees included Elba Esther Gordillo, the feared and powerful leader of the teachers union, and the PRI party chief Humberto Moreira, the former governor of Coahuila state who is now facing a federal financial probe.

Pena nieto quien Peña Nieto, the telegenic governor of the country's most populous state, has consistently led in polls on elections to be held next summer.

Although none of Mexico's major parties have decided on a candidate, for now, the conventional wisdom says Mexicans are open to a return of the former ruling party after two terms of conservative presidents who have been unable to deliver on promises of expanding and equalizing economic growth.

Another element of the unspoken appeal of a PRI presidency -- despite widespread corruption and repression of dissent during the 71 years of the party's rule -- is the assumption that a PRI president could find a way to stop the spiraling violence inflicted by Mexico's drug gangs. While visiting Washington in May, Peña Nieto said that there could be no pact with organized crime in 2012 (link in Spanish).

After last month's casino attack in Monterrey, former President Vicente Fox suggested that Mexico should seek a truce or amnesty law aimed at the country's cartels. His comments were widely dismissed and rejected by the current administration of President Felipe Calderon.

[NOTE: This post has been updated.]

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top Photo: Mexico state Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto delivers his state-of-the-state address on Sept. 5, 2011, in Toluca, Mexico. Credit: La Primera Plana / Bottom Photo: Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto. Credit: Quien

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.


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:

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages


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

Panic grips fans during shooting near Mexico soccer match [Video]

It wasn't the sort of thing you expect to see during a professional soccer match: a field emptying of players in the middle of play. Within seconds of the first pops of gunfire, frightened fans ducked under their seats for cover, then thousands rushed onto the field, seeking escape, some carrying children.

The Spanish-language video above shows what happened Saturday night during a shootout that erupted outside a game in northern Mexico between the visiting Monarcas of Morelia and the host Santos Laguna in the city of Torreon, Coahuila state. Unlike recent incidents of stadium violence in California, the shootout in Mexico did not leave any dead or seriously injured. But the episode demonstrated the state of perpetual jitters that has come to define daily life for many Mexicans.

As the country's drug cartels battle each other over smuggling routes to the United States and also battle U.S.-backed government security forces, Saturday's shooting shows that Mexicans seem to face the potential threat of gunfire at anytime, anywhere.

This time it happened in Torreon, a city that has suffered a spike of massacres and gun battles since the start of the drug war in 2006. Reports said the gunfire was aimed at a police station outside the stadium, but the shots were loud and close enough to send fans into a panic caught live on television.

Just before the 40-minute mark in the Saturday Santos-Monarcas match, as seen in the video, gunfire is heard echoing through the arena, terrifying players and stands full of Torreon futbol fans.

"This doesn't sound good," the announcer says as players and referees are seen running off the field. "Let's hope this doesn't get out of control."

Torreon stadium shooting Mexico Reuters

The seconds tick, and gunfire continues. After nearly two minutes, without any apparent coordination or announcement, fans who had been ducking behind seats suddenly begin pouring onto the field, heading to a corner of the stadium away from the sound of shooting. Some younger fans are seen hopping and laughing on the turf while others are running with children in their arms. One woman is videotaped weeping.

In this Spanish-language video by El Universal, fans hiding below their seats tell others who are trying to exit, "Don't leave! Don't leave! Get down." People are heard whimpering. Here are photos.

The game between Santos and Monarcas was suspended. Torreon's mayor told reporters his city's police force is under constant attack by suspected drug cartel members, with 17 officers killed so far this year (link in Spanish). The Sinaloa and Zetas cartels are said to be fighting over the Torreon corridor.

President Felipe Calderon took to Twitter to calm Mexicans who were watching the chaos in Torreon live, saying: "The situation is under control." The president's comment sparked numerous retorts by other Twitter users, some asking: "Under control by whom?"

Details on the attack were still murky as of Monday morning. Subsequent reports said bullet holes were discovered inside the venue (link in Spanish).

Overall, Mexico's drug war has left more than 40,000 dead in almost five years, and resulted in unknown numbers of kidnapped, disappeared and internal exiles. The flow of drugs north to the United States has been unhindered despite Calderon's military-led crackdown and his government's arrest or killings of high-profile cartel targets.

Even before the weekend had ended, a song had already been written about the Torreon stadium shooting. See a report in Spanish here, with a video link to the ballad-style corrido that appeared online documenting the event.

"Let's protect the stadiums," the singer wails, "so that our little ones can have a better future."

-- Daniel Hernandez

Video credit: Univision Futbol via Youtube. Photo: Fans duck during the shootout Saturday near the Santos Laguna stadium in Torreon, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

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

The week in Latin America: Peru's African legacy

Susana baca times

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

Significant court ruling in Mexico

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled that human-rights abuse claims against the military must be tried in civilian courts and no longer in closed-door military tribunals.

The ruling presents a test to Mexico's fledgling civilian justice system, still in dire need of reform, as well as President Felipe Calderon's military-led strategy against organized crime. Abuse claims against Mexico's armed forces have skyrocketed since soldiers and marines were dispatched to the streets in 2006 to combat the country's drug cartels.

Searching for the missing children of El Salvador

Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood was recently in El Salvador, where he reported a profile of an organization, named Pro-Busqueda, which uses the modern tools of social media as well as "old–fashioned grunt work" to locate missing children from El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Read the story here

Excavating Afro-Peruvian history

From Peru, Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson offers a look at an acclaimed singer who is seeking to reclaim and celebrate the country's rich history of African migration and culture.

One such icon of the Afro-Peruvian past, says singer Susana Baca, is the instrument known as the cajon, or box, which Baca has incorporated into her records. "A lot of people saw this as the music of the slaves," she explains. "They were ashamed of it."

Gun scandal grows in the United States

With wide implications for Mexico and its conflict against organized crime, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal continued to reverberate north of the border. This week, the federal government imposed a tougher rule for the reporting of semiautomatic weapon sales in border states.

Revelations from the scandal, in which deadly weapons were knowingly "walked" into Mexico by U.S. agents, confirm that the United States government has been essentially arming both sides of the drug war in Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian singer Susana Baca, left, in the village of Santa Barbara, Peru. Credit: Giancarlo Aponte, For The Times

Mexico drug war strategy will continue despite appeals from activists, Calderon says

Calderon sicilia ap

Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Thursday met face-to-face with activist-poet Javier Sicilia in a long and often colorful public meeting aimed at reaching a consensus on how to curb the country's rising drug-war death toll.

Sicilia demanded Calderon apologize for carnage that has left an estimated 40,000 dead, and demanded a change in the government's anti-crime strategy. But Calderon, flanked by Cabinet officials, repeated once more that it would be wrong to alter the basic thrust — a military-led campaign against the country's powerful cartels.

Calderon also said he would like to be remembered for other things he has done during his administration, such as building hospitals, fortifying education and legal institutions, and his environmental initiatives. But the conservative president admitted he will "probably be remembered for [the drug war], and probably with much injustice."

The meeting, at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, was televised live and attended by other relatives of victims of drug-related violence.

Some relatives fought back tears at times as they bluntly criticized the impunity enjoyed by criminals. Julian LeBaron, a prominent Mormon activist from Chihuahua state, reminded Calderon that in the case of his brother Benjamin, who was killed in 2009, no one had been placed behind bars yet.

"It's time to send a message to the world that violence does not end with more violence," LeBaron said. "Let's end this war now, so that you will not be remembered as the president of the 40,000 dead."

The event, dubbed "Dialogue for Peace," was called in response to the "Caravan for Peace" that Sicilia, LeBaron, and others led two weeks ago to Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border. At the end of the meeting, Calderon promised to have another meeting with Sicilia and other prominent peace activists in three months.

Sicilia also announced a forthcoming caravan to the south of the country and to Guatemala.

— Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon greets poet Javier Sicilia at the "Dialogue for Peace" in Mexico City, June 23, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

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.

Continue reading »

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