La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: gangs

Columnist: Immigrant rights community must react to Mexico migrant massacre

Migrants coffins honduras massacre afp

The massacre in Mexico of 72 migrants bound for the U.S. should be met with outrage and introspection by immigrant-rights groups, but has so far been met mostly with silence, Hector Tobar argues in a Thursday column in The Times. The columnist writes that people in the immigrant-rights community readily protest anti-immigrant legislation in the United States but rarely address the root causes for illegal migration from Latin America.

The migrant massacre (which La Plaza has covered here, here, and here) was an "act of psychological warfare" by suspected members of the Zetas drug gang, the columnist writes, and it exposes multiple failures in immigration reform in the U.S., Mexico's drug war, and the lack of economic opportunity across the region. An excerpt:

Most of the country's leading immigrant rights groups haven't even bothered to issue a news release.

That doesn't surprise me. Generally speaking, the U.S. immigrant rights movement doesn't have much to say about the social and political conditions that lead so many to leave their native countries and place themselves at the mercy of an increasingly violent smuggling industry.

Indeed, the United Nations released a condemning statement just days after the migrant killings, but major immigrant-rights organizations in the United States apparently did not.

An Amnesty International report released in April says Central and South American migrants seeking to cross Mexico to reach the U.S. embark on "one of the most dangerous journeys in the world," as human smugglers and corrupt officials routinely expose migrants to abuse and violence, including the rape of female migrants. Those who survive the trek across Mexican territory then face the increasing risk of death along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico's national human rights commission estimates that 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year in the country, a startling figure. On Wednesday, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likened violence tied to Mexican drug trafficking groups to a Colombian-style "insurgency," sparking rebukes in Mexico, authorities said they arrested seven gunmen suspected of participating in the Aug. 23 massacre in Tamaulipas state.

Tobar, an author and most recently an L.A. Times foreign correspondent in Mexico and Argentina, writes a regular column in the paper.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Coffins of victims of the Mexico migrant massacre return to Honduras. Credit: Agence France-Presse

In Mexico's drug kingpin landscape, who will replace 'La Barbie'?

La barbie mexico kingpin latimes

Federal police in Mexico on Monday captured a notorious drug kingpin, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also known as "La Barbie." Valdez, 37, is the Texas-born don with boyish blondish looks, considered attractive in Mexico, who operated within the Beltran Leyva drug-trafficking organization.

Authorities presented Valdez in a customary parade before the Mexican press Tuesday morning. The captured kingpin, wearing the same jeans and polo shirt from his Monday arrest, looked down a few times and smiled sheepishly, or shrugged, ignoring questions (see video in Spanish at El Universal). Valdez allegedly trafficked a ton of cocaine a month, federal police said (link in Spanish).

The arrest is a victory for President Felipe Calderon and his struggling, nearly four-year-long assault on powerful cartels, but few people here are likely cheering at the news. In Mexico, the removal of one drug-trafficking boss usually leads to a flurry of violence as various deputies, or even outsiders, attempt to move in and fill the power vacuum. Valdez had been locked in just such a battle with Hector Beltran Leyva, brother to Arturo Beltran Leyva, the cartel chief who died in a shootout with Mexican marines in December. 

As Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times: "But arresting Valdez will not necessarily quell the violence since others may rise to fight for control of the Beltran Leyva operations."

The question for many now is, 'Who will take La Barbie's place?' A top anti-organized crime investigator told reporters that Valdez has already told them of a "summit" held last year in Cuernavaca between top drug kingpins, an attempt to quell the surging violence across the country (link in Spanish). But the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva caused those talks to break down.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Edgar Valdez Villarreal, or "La Barbie," after his arrest Monday. Credit: Mexico federal policeMexico

Report: Mexico's drug war is not working

Mexico drug war tijuana memorial police

Is the U.S.-backed drug war in Mexico working? By almost any account or any measure, the answer is no. Though high-ranking authorities on both sides of the border continue to support Mexico's military-led enforcement strategy against the country's powerful drug trafficking cartels, the facts remain stark, L.A. Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood say in a special report published Sunday.

The cartels are stronger, more violent, and transnational. Here are the worrisome highlights from the story:

* More than 28,000 people have been killed since December 2006.

* Mexico's effort has failed to dismantle the networks or significantly slow the flow of drugs. More narcotics are flowing into the United States.

* The availability of methamphetamine in the U.S. has hit a five-year high, while cocaine exports have dropped, possibly due to increased flow to other markets.

* Traffickers may now pose a long-term danger to Mexico's stability. Swaths of the country are now in effect without authority.

* The groups have transformed themselves into broad criminal empires deeply involved in migrant smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and trafficking in contraband.

* Drug gangs are armed with military-class weapons smuggled from the U.S., or weapons left over from U.S.-backed wars in Central America.

* Mexican traffickers have muscled aside competitors to gain control over shipments of most types of illegal drugs in the hemisphere.

* Criminal groups have usurped the government's role as tax collector.

* Traffickers have succeeded in shutting down major operations of Pemex, the state oil company and top source of national income. Traffickers have been stealing oil for years.

* Mexican drug gangs now operate in more than 2,500 cities in the U.S.

In addition to all this, attacks on journalists and human rights workers have skyrocketed, and so have claims of human rights abuses committed by Mexico's military. Still, the administration of U.S. President Obama plans to supply Mexico with more than $1 billion in aid under the Merida Initiative. A recent congressional report warns of lack of oversight on how that aid is spent. Only 9% of Merida Initiative funds have been delivered so far.

Now, the question of whether Mexico should legalize drugs, as former President Vicente Fox now advocates, is in many ways a moot proposal. A legalization of drugs in Mexico would have no effect on the illicit drug trade and market without a concurrent plan in the United States, many experts say.

But don't count on that to happen anytime soon. As the idea floats over both countries this week, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Associated Press: "We don't believe legalization is the answer." 

Then ... what is?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: Authorities salute the caskets of seven police officers slain in Tijuana in April 2009. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Mexican authorities nab suspected cartel hit man, a former police commander

Miguel ortiz el tyson michoacan
Authorities in the Mexican state of Michoacan have arrested a top suspect in several recent high-profile ambushes blamed on the drug trafficking cartel La Familia, including a recent attack on a police convoy that left 12 federal officers dead, The Times reports.

The hit man, Miguel Ortiz Miranda, alias "El Tyson," was previously a state police commander and is suspected of also being involved in a deadly April ambush targeting the Michoacan state security chief, Minerva Bautista Gomez. She survived the attack, but four people were killed.

Ortiz joined Michoacan's police in 1999 and left in 2008. By then he reportedly had been working for La Familia, a quasi-religious organization that specializes in methamphetamine production, since 2005. After his arrest Tuesday, "Ortiz described five days of indoctrination when he joined La Familia that included Bible-reading, self-help seminars and weapons training," The Times reports.

The attack on Bautista's convoy was one of the most extreme ever recorded in the government's bloody 3-1/2-year conflict with trafficking groups that has seen plenty of extreme violence. The security chief survived a lengthy barrage of firepower that left more than 2,700 spent shells. Three grenades were recovered undetonated. Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, in Michoacan recently, conducted the first international media interview with Bautista after the attack.

"They didn't just want to kill us," she said in the interview. "They wanted to destroy us."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Federal police officers with suspected La Familia hit man Miguel Ortiz Miranda. Credit: La Opinion de Michoacan

Pressure mounts on Mauricio Funes in El Salvador

Mauricio funes el salvador A year after taking office as El Salvador's first leftist president since the country's civil war, former journalist Mauricio Funes has come under fire for what is perceived as lack of progress on promises to improve security and economic conditions in the country, The Times reports.

A brazen attack against buses in San Salvador on June 20 left 16 people dead and resulted in more political discord for Funes. The country has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America and is terrorized by transnational gangs with roots in Los Angeles.

The president, who took office in June 2009, also faces charges that he has not attacked corruption more forcefully. His agriculture minister recently resigned in frustration, citing the persistence of corruption in the government as his reason for leaving.

Funes has defended his efforts. Corrupt police officers have been investigated and dismissed, gangs have been dismantled, and thousands of murder charges have been filed, Funes said. El Salvador's army is now patrolling prisons, where much of the country's crime is said to originate, notes Tim's El Salvador Blog.

The president also argues that his government is generating jobs and attracting foreign investment.

But an unidentified security official told Alex Renderos, The Times' special correspondent in San Salvador, that Mexican drug trafficking cartels are making inroads in El Salvador, challenging Funes' ability to govern. "With the inexperience of this government in terms of security matters, and its cowardice to stand up to organized crime, you have the ingredients for a criminal state," the official said.

After the shocking bus attack, Funes called on leaders of El Salvador's political parties to come up with a new anti-gang strategy this week, reports the online newspaper El Faro. The paper also notes skeptically that the president's anti-gang strategy "recycles the formula" used by previous right-wing governments.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

'Dudus' in drag: How accused Jamaican drug lord evaded arrest

Chris duds coke cross dressing
When accused Jamaican drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke was finally arrested last week, authorities said he had evaded capture since last month's deadly clashes in West Kingston with the help of disguises. At the time of his arrest, The Times reports, "He was dressed like a woman and wearing a wig, police said."

The revelation that Coke moved about Jamaica disguised as a woman has sparked some discussion on the island about the nature and role of powerful "dons" in the broader society. Writing in the Jamaica Observer, columnist Chris Burns notes that while the image of Coke in a woman's wig is at first comical, it also reveals nagging social problems in Jamaica.

From his commentary, "Bad men seem to love women's wigs":

We would be fooling ourselves if we believe that crime and violence are not offshoots of deeper socio-psychological, emotional, economic and cultural struggles, such as poverty, low self-esteem, sexual struggles and repression, intolerance, poor parenting and socialisation, and emotional traumas from abusive homes and communities. Dudus, wittingly or unwittingly, might have opened up Pandora's Box to a greater solution to donmanship.

The writer Kei Miller, in a Facebook post titled "Bad men nuh dress like girl," points out some historical parallels:

This strange history of bad men dressing like girls actually stretches further back. Before there was Dudus, there was Natty Morgan. Natty also topped the charts of Jamaica’s Most Wanted and had been on the run, it seemed, forever and a day. For a while Natty had even lived across a swamp and many women would risk the deadly bites of alligators just to be with him on nights while he waited on the police to find him. After Natty was gunned down (having no pastor to protect him unfortunately) many a woman would come forward to testify that it was their frock that Natty had borrowed on this night or that ...

Coke was extradited to New York on Thursday and now faces multiple drugs and weapons charges. His lawyer told BBC Radio he was "deeply saddened" by the deaths in Tivoli Gardens, Coke's former stronghold neighborhood in Kingston. "Christopher 'Dudus' Coke is an unfortunate Jamaican who has gotten caught up in local political intrigue and international drama," said the lawyer, Tom Tavares-Finson.

The Observer says that Coke faces an "uphill battle" against the charges.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: A previous mugshot of Christopher Coke, and his mugshot from last week's arrest. Credit: Reuters and Associated Press

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding faces no-confidence vote by Parliament


Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding on Tuesday pledged tougher measures against gangs even as the country’s Parliament introduced a no-confidence motion against the leader after a police action last week that left more than 70 people dead.

“Gunmen who no longer flee when the security forces approach but engage them with vicious firepower must be confronted with the full force of the law,” Golding said, according to news reports. “The time for equivocation is over.”

The violence, which drew widespread criticism, resulted from the search for alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who remained at large. Parliament was preparing Tuesday to censure Golding for his handling of a U.S. request to extradite Coke.

As La Plaza pointed out last week, a former prime minister of Jamaica has been blunt in his criticism of the security operation in Kingston, the capital. In an interview with L.A. Times special correspondent Chris Kraul, Edward Seaga called for Golding's resignation.

Seaga and Golding are rivals within Jamaica's Labor Party; both have represented the West Kingston area that encompasses the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood, Coke's stronghold. "The criminals are not the people who have been killed, just innocent people leaving their houses. The armed forces shot every man they could find," Seaga said.

There is no indication now that Golding will step down, but Seaga's claims are supported by Kraul's reporting. From this article in The Times, about a Kingston mortuary:

One of those waiting outside was Debbie Dale, whose son, Jamie, 21, was shot to death inside her house Wednesday in the Kingston Three neighborhood. She said about 10 officers knocked down her door and shot him at close range.

"They took me outside the house while they questioned him. Then I heard the shots. They dragged him out by the feet, threw him in a van and drove away. Only then could I go inside. There was blood everywhere," Dale said. "They said later he died in a shoot-out, but he didn't have a gun."

Residents alleged that some of the killings by security forces were random.

Angry Tivoli Gardens residents lashed out against the operation in this video produced by the Jamaica Gleaner. Coke remains at large and is assumed to have left the area. Golding, meanwhile, is defending his government's actions against "dons" in Kingston's tough "garrison" neighborhoods, saying,  "This effort must be sustained. It may be a long haul but there must be no letting up."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A police officer and a scrawled message in support of Christopher "Dudus" Coke in Kingston, Jamaica. Credit: Associated Press.

Mexico's treatment of immigrants slammed


Tens of thousands of Central Americans enter Mexico illegally every year, most with the hope of continuing on to the United States. But many stay in Mexico, at least for a time, where they may be beaten, killed, raped, kidnapped by criminal gangs, put in jail or shaken down by corrupt Mexican officials.

That is the grim conclusion of a new report by Amnesty International, Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico.

"It is one of the most dangerous journeys in the world," the human rights organization says. 

Amnesty International called on Mexican authorities to act urgently to protect migrants "who are preyed on by criminal gangs while public officials turn a blind eye or even play an active part" in the widespread abuse.

The government responded quickly, saying it "shared [Amnesty's] concern" and was working to find ways to ease the harrowing plight of migrants, among whom there is a growing number of women and children.

Many who set out for the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries end up staying in Mexico because they run out of money or learn that opportunities in the U.S. have dried up. As we reported  last year, this poses a dilemma for Mexico, even as the government here is demanding better treatment for its nationals in the United States:

The treatment of immigrants has become a divisive and embarrassing issue for Mexico. A country that has historically sent millions of its own people to the U.S. and elsewhere in search of work, Mexico has proved itself less than hospitable to Central Americans following the same calling.

The Amnesty report says that up to 60% of female migrants suffer some form of sexual abuse; migrants are routinely forced to pay bribes; detention centers are woefully overcrowded, and victims are too terrorized to make formal complaints, rendering them "invisible."

-- Tracy Wilkinson ,in Mexico City

Photo: Central Americans precariously hop trains to travel across Mexico. Credit: Ricardo Ramirez Arriola / Amnesty International

Salvadoran gangs akin to terrorists, FBI agent says


Violent street gangs in El Salvador  -- most with roots in Los Angeles -- are a threat to national security in both the United States and Central America, just like domestic terrorists. That's according to the top FBI agent stationed in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador.

Leo Navarrete, legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, told La Prensa Grafica (link in Spanish) that authorities are on the lookout for connections between gangs and big-time drug traffickers, whose operations are spreading across Central America as the trade expands southward beyond Mexico's borders.

"Gangs can be seen as a form of domestic terrorism," Navarrete said. "You see them extorting people, bodies in the streets. It is a way to destabilize society."

The numbers of pandilleros in El Salvador began skyrocketing in the 1990s when U.S. authorities deported thousands of Salvadorans to their home country, even though many had lived most of their lives in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, where the gangs developed. Today they are one ingredient in the social crisis that gives El Salvador one of the highest homicide rates in the region. You can see the video "La Vida Loca" by journalist Christian Poveda about the gangs' lives and rituals. Poveda was killed last year, apparently by the very gangsters he portrayed.

Rising violence has chilled life in El Salvador, two decades after the end of a ruthless civil war.

Just Friday, a Mexican official working on security in El Salvador survived an assassination attempt that killed his wife. The man, Guillermo Medina, was identified in Mexico as an officer of the Mexican Embassy in San Salvador who worked with Interpol.

-- Alex Renderos in San Salvador

Photo: Relatives of gang members cover their faces during a recent demonstration in San Salvador. Credit: Frederick Meza via El Faro,

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Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes goes to Washington


El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, has been making the rounds in Washington this week, another sign of changing times as a Democratic administration welcomes the representative of a party of former leftist guerrillas whom previous U.S. governments tried to annihilate.

Funes dropped in on President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other members of Congress. He lobbied for an extension of the temporary-protection program that allows nearly a quarter-million Salvadorans to live and work legally in the U.S. And he sought (and said he'd been promised) around $1.5 billion in loans from the World Bank and other institutions.

Funes praised the "new relationship" between El Salvador and the U.S. but also said Washington's focus must go beyond fighting drug trafficking and criminal gangs, the Obama administration's stated top priorities. Underlying causes behind violence, such as poverty and social inequality, must also be defeated, he said.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), at his meeting with Funes, said: "We think about El Salvador 20 years ago, and the terrible conflict, and then the taking hold of democracy. But the real test of democracy taking hold comes when you could have a successful transition of power from one political party to another, and your election last year manifested that indeed in El Salvador democracy has taken hold."

Funes and his Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former guerrilla coalition that is now a political party, won election a year ago, marking the end of two decades of rule by a single right-wing party.

There is some Spanish-language coverage of Funes' D.C. visit on the Salvadoran website El Faro, and the newspaper La Prensa Grafica opines on the significance of what it calls a "fundamental relationship."

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: The cover of El Diario de Hoy, a Salvadoran newspaper, shows President Mauricio Funes greeting Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Credit: El Diario de Hoy.


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