La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: human rights

MEXICO: Poet's peace caravan to end drug war approaches Ciudad Juarez

Caravan peace march morelia

Every few years in Mexico, a grass-roots social movement pops up that seeks to shake up the status quo, take on longstanding corruption, the wide gap between rich and poor, and the often-unresponsive political class.

There was the Zapatistas' march to Mexico City in 2001, the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador "vote by vote" movement after the presidential election in 2006, and the "nullify your vote" movement during the 2009 midterm elections.

Each has expressed a simmering discontent. Some see Mexico as little changed over the years, despite the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the arrival of democratic pluralism with the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000.

This year, the movement nudging its way into headlines in Mexico is led by a poet named Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in Cuernavaca. L.A. Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood profiled Sicilia here. Sicilia is calling for a "re-foundation of the state," or a "peaceful revolution" in which the primary and immediate goal is to halt the violence of the drug war.

It's a tall order. Mexico's war is a multi-theater conflict pitting the resources of the U.S. and Mexican governments against combat-ready drug-trafficking organizations that reach across borders and show little hesitation to kill anyone who stands in their way. Innocents, migrants passing through Mexican territory, women activists who have boldly criticized criminals in public — many have met their end at the hands of cartel assassins.

Many Mexicans say they feel caught in the cross-fire between the cartels and the country's military and federal police. So they've taken to the streets, marching in cities from Monterrey to Mexico City, dressed in white, demanding peace. After his son's death, Sicilia vowed never to write another poem again, striking a chord, (link in Spanish) and called tens of thousands to march alongside him.

At the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo on May 8, Sicilia delivered an impassioned rebuke of President Felipe Calderon's strategy against organized crime, seeking to crystallize the frustrations (link in Spanish) of residents fed up with the extreme violence.

Mexicans across the world (link in Spanish) have held concurrent protests and news conferences denouncing the drug war, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, including in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

On Friday, Sicilia's "peace caravan" is expected to roll into Ciudad Juarez for the signing of a "national pact" to change course as he called for on May 8 in Mexico City.

Activists from both sides of the border are set to converge on a city that has become the dark emblem of how horrific the drug-related violence can get. More than 8,000 people have died violently in Ciudad Juarez since the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began battling there three years ago.

Drafts of the pact refer to six demands: Initiating a "new path to peace with justice and dignity"; an end to the war strategy against organized crime with a renewed focus on human rights; attacking corruption and impunity; attacking the economic roots and profits of organized crime; attending to the "emergency" facing Mexico's youth; initiating "participatory democracy" and democracy in mass media.

Ultimately, the pact appears to be a symbolic gesture. But can the movement translate emotional power into political strength? Can it avoid the fate of other social movements — being swallowed up by established political parties? Is Javier Sicilia's grief enough to force a change in the anti-crime strategy?

So far, the Mexican government has signaled it will not turn back in the drug cartel crackdown, an operation backed by the U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative. Both governments last week rejected the findings of a high-profile international commission calling for the legalization of some drugs.

On Wednesday, new U.S. government reports found that the "Obama administration is unable to show that the billions of dollars spent in the war on drugs have significantly stemmed the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States," reports The Times

For updates on the caravan to Ciudad Juarez, follow the Twitter hashtag #CaravanaMX.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Javier Sicilia's peace caravan passing through Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

Humala claims victory in Peru elections, beating the Fujimori name

Ollanta humala campaign afp

Former Peruvian military officer Ollanta Humala has been named the winner of Sunday's presidential election, news that briefly sent Peru's stock market into a jittery plunge, reports L.A. Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson from Lima.

Humala ran strong among the poor in Peru, who have been left out of the country's strong economic growth in recent years. His opponent, Keiko Fujimori -- daughter of the disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori -- found much of her support among Peru's affluent establishment in Lima. Both had unpleasant historical legacies to overcome.

Fujimori in particular appeared unable to shake memories of the human-rights atrocities committed during her father's presidency and the war against the Shining Path. During the campaign, she was pressured into apologizing for the forced sterilization of an estimated 300,000 impoverished women -- yet kept the official in charge of that program by her side as an aide.

Many Peruvians told reporters they were fearful a vote for Keiko would be like a vote for her father. The elder Fujimori remains jailed in Peru on charges of corruption and human-rights abuses.

In Humala's previous run for the presidency, he was cast as a radical nationalist in the mold of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. This time around, he presented himself as a more moderate leftist, similar to the hugely popular former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. At one point, Humala even swore on a Bible that he would respect democracy and the Peruvian constitution.

"We won't expropriate even a dog," he said.

After stocks plunged on Monday, they bounced back on Tuesday as Humala promised he would maintain policies to keep up Peru's growth and seek to maintain strong ties with the United States. He assumes the presidency, for a five-year term, on July 28.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Supporters of Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala rally before a campaign poster. Credit: Agence France-Presse

How many have died in Mexico's drug war?

Sicilia march morelia

The last figure released by the Mexican government on the number of dead during its 4 1/2-year, military-led crackdown on organized crime came in January, at just over 34,000. It covered the period from the start of the drug war in December 2006 until the end of 2010.

Homicides attributed to the drug war continue across the country on a daily basis, and many more violent incidents probably go unreported. Self-censorship is widespread among news outlets in violent states such as Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

With 2011 nearing its midway point, how many people have been killed in Mexico?

Until May many major international news outlets covering Mexico used the general figure of 34,000 or 35,000 drug war deaths -- while bodies have kept piling up in shootouts or discovered in mass graves by the hundreds. In the border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, for example, at least 976 people have been violently killed in the metropolitan region since the beginning of 2011, reports the tally at Frontera List.

But several news outlets in Mexico, as well as the peace movement of poet Javier Sicilia, have begun citing a figure of 40,000 dead since last month. A U.S.-based law-enforcement group favoring more liberal drug policies assembled this online data map from news and Internet sources to arrive an estimate topping 40,000, an increase of about 6,000 since the last official figure. (The Times lately has cited an estimate of at least 38,000, based on the official figures plus an approximation for the first months of 2011 derived from mainstream Mexican media tallies.)

Continue reading »

Man's death sparks protests among blacks in Mexico

Isaac chinedu screengrab police mexico city

Shortly after midnight on May 11 in central Mexico City, Isaac Chinedu, an immigrant from Nigeria, became involved in some kind of confrontation with a group of police officers on a dark side street. The encounter escalated, and Chinedu was severely beaten. Some minutes later, he was dead, the victim of a hit-and-run driver, authorities say.

The case of Isaac Chinedu has led to demonstrations among Mexico City's African and Afro-Mexican communities, which are laying blame on the police officers who allegedly beat the 29-year-old before he apparently ran into traffic on a busy highway. Chinedu's Mexican widow, Liduvina Castillo, claims that racial prejudice resulted in her husband's death, a charge activists here are rallying around.

"This was an act of discrimination," Castillo told a newscast. "Why? Because they detained him simply because he was black. He wasn't doing anything. Isaac was waiting for a taxi to return to his home in peace."

Prosecutors and forensic investigators said they've determined that Chinedu died of injuries suffered after he was struck by a vehicle on Calzada de Tlalpan, but said his body showed trauma from blows delivered by at least two auxiliary police officers, whose actions were captured by surveillance video. Four officers have been questioned in the incident, but there have been no arrests or charges filed.

Two other officers who may have been involved in the incident have not been identified, authorities said. The hit-and-run driver, meanwhile, remains at-large.

Continue reading »

Mexico: Mass grave toll climbs; government defends itself



The number of bodies pulled from two sets of clandestine graves -- one in the border state of Tamaulipas and the other in Durango state to the southwest -- is climbing toward 300 as violence in Mexico takes an often mind-numbing toll.

In a meeting with the media -- in which questions were not allowed -- federal Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales on Tuesday upped the toll around the Tamaulipas city of San Fernando to 183. Separately, officials in Durango said the corpses there total 96 as of Wednesday.

The Times reported earlier this week that many of the Tamaulipas-area victims were passengers pulled from buses and slaughtered in the last couple of months. Many of the Durango bodies are older and none have been identified, officials say. While the San Fernando graves are in a fairly remote zone, the Durango burials are in the state's capital of the same name. 

The horrific discovery of the mass graves has renewed pressure on the government of President Felipe Calderon, who has been blasted by the public and in the media for failing to stem bloodshed in the ongoing war with drug cartels. Morales, who is new to the job, was joined by Alejandro Poire, the government's main spokesman on security issues, and the two sought to deflect criticisms. Poire asserted that Tamaulipas "is under the control of the Mexican state," a response to the widely held perception that authorities have lost out to vicious drug cartels in the area.  

(You can read the statements from Morales and Poire and see a video of the officials delivering them -- all in Spanish -- on this government website.)

Later Wednesday, Poire went before the media for the second time in two days and this time answered questions. He said the "great majority" of the suspected killers in the Tamaulipas case have been arrested, and that a purge of local authorities was necessary to restore the public trust, complaining that local officials had failed to inform federal officials of the kidnappings and killings. (See comments -- in Spanish -- here.)

Meanwhile, civic groups led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed last month, called for another round of large street demonstrations starting next week to protest the violence.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: A worker takes a body from the morgue in the Tamaulipas city of Matamoros, Mexico, earlier in April. Credit: Associated Press


Uruguay moves to overturn amnesty law, an opening for major human rights cases


Uruguay is close to overturning a law that gave amnesty for human rights crimes committed by the military during the nation's 1973-85 dictatorship. The Senate narrowly approved the measure this week, and the lower house is expected to make only minor changes. The repeal could go into effect by May 20, the day Uruguay honors political prisoners who disappeared or were killed during the military regime's crackdown on leftists.

South American countries once saddled with right-wing military dictatorships have taken various steps to end amnesties that many enacted as the army returned to its barracks and democracy was restored; Argentina, for example, has put several former generals on trial. Uruguay was one of the last to take this step; the amnesty was criticized by Amnesty International in a 2010 report, which said the law permitted impunity. And the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled earlier this year, in a forced-disappearance case, that Uruguay should scuttle the law.

"The vote to annul Uruguay's amnesty law is a major victory for justice," Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch told La Plaza. "The law has been an obstacle to prosecute police and military personnel for decades."

But Uruguay's still-powerful military and opposition political parties said the amnesty should stay in place. Top military brass held a late-night meeting with President Jose Mujica on Thursday to register complaints, the Montevideo daily La Republica reported (link in Spanish).

Overturning the military amnesty was a pet project of Mujica, whose leftist supporters demanded it. Mujica, 75, is himself a former guerrilla leader imprisoned and tortured by the military.  An amnesty for crimes committed by leftist guerrillas during the same dictatorship years remains intact.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Uruguayan President Jose Mujica. Credit: Associated Press







Adultery soon not to be illegal in Mexico. Who knew it was?


The most surprising thing about Mexico's decision this week to decriminalize adultery was that the practice actually was a crime.

The culture of "la casa chica" has a long history in Mexico. Literally "the little house," the phrase refers to a man's mistress and the children he has with her, set up in a second household. According to the penal code (the website Animal Politico publishes the code here in Spanish), that could earn the man a two-year jail term. The law was rarely enforced.

Social commentator Guadalupe Loaeza says the practice of second households was once widespread, especially among the Mexican political class.

"Mexican casas chicas run through all of Mexico's history: Maximilian himself [the 19th century French-imposed emperor of Mexico] had a casa chica for Conchita Sedano y Leguizamo [his mistress] just outside Cuernavaca," she wrote a few years back when the move to repeal the adultery law first got started.

There was even a Mexican movie, made in 1950 by director Roberto Gavaldon, called "La Casa Chica" (English title was "The Love Nest"), in which, we are told, the philandering husband was a sympathetic character.

The prevalence of la casa chica has faded over the last generation or so, Loaeza notes, in part because of easier divorce, better rights for women, globalization and economic crises that made it an expensive venture.  

Some of the legislators who championed the decriminalization effort in the Senate this week said they wanted to get rid of the law because it discriminated against women. The law "was historically used by men to maintain women as property," Sen. Pablo Gomez of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said (link in Spanish).

The repeal passed the Senate on Thursday, previously passed the lower house and now must be published in the official government newspaper.

The Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, weighed in (link in Spanish) to remind Mexicans that although adultery may no longer be a crime, it remains forever a sin.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City





Obama to visit grave of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero


President Obama is visiting Latin America this week, and on Wednesday he will make what may be the most dramatic gesture of the trip.

Obama is scheduled to pay homage to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper as he said Mass on March 24, 1980, in the early days of El Salvador's civil war. Obama's planned stop at Romero's tomb in the National Cathedral will mark the first time a U.S. president has done so, a "truly extraordinary" gesture, the Salvadoran news website El Faro said in an editorial. 

Romero's killer was a member of the death squads that worked on behalf of the side in the civil war that the U.S. government came to support against leftist guerrillas. Today, those guerrillas, recast as a political party capable of winning elections, are in power.

Obama's action demonstrates just how far the process of democracy and reconciliation has come in post-war El Salvador, the country's ambassador to the United States, Francisco Altschul, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"Monsignor Romero is a universal symbol of justice, peace, human rights and reconciliation," Altschul said. "We are incredibly satisfied and appreciative" of Obama's visit to the grave.

But reconciliation goes only so far. One person Obama will not meet with is the country's top security official, even though public security is a major topic on the agenda. Justice and Security Minister Manuel Melgar is considered by Washington to have blood on his hands, having been implicated in a guerrilla attack on a Zona Rosa sidewalk cafe in San Salvador in 1985 in which four U.S. Marines were killed along with nine civilians. Melgar's exact role is in dispute, but U.S. officials as a matter of course steer clear of him.  

-- Tracy WIlkinson in Mexico City 

Photo: Salvadoran children march with photographs of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Credit: Mauro Arias / El Faro

Mexican movie is 'censored'



The documentary “Presumed Guilty” (“Presunto Culpable” link in Spanish) has received accolades far and wide, from human rights groups, audiences and Mexican legislators. It is a damning look at the Mexican judicial system that hastens to put a man in prison on the flimsiest of evidence.

 That same judiciary this week ordered the movie pulled from theaters. The reason? One of the prosecution witnesses in the case claims he never gave permission for footage of him to be used in the film.

Backers of the film were having none of this. The witness, Victor Reyes Bravo, was taped while in public hearings and no special permission was necessary, the makers of “Presumed Guilty” say.

 “We see this as an attempt at censorship, an attempt to block the exhibition of a movie that all Mexico must see,” the film’s director, Roberto Hernandez, said in a radio interview (link in Spanish).

 The movie recounts the conviction of Antonio Zuniga on a 2005 murder charge, which is eventually overturned.

 Both federal and local governments say they don't agree with the court's ruling (link in Spanish). Theaters are vowing to continue showing the important film.

 --Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City


Photo: Antonio Zuniga is shown behind bars. Credit: El Universal.












Mourners in Mexico say farewell to Samuel Ruiz, priest who mediated Zapatista conflict

Samuel ruiz obit latimes

Mourners this week have been streaming into the cathedral in the Mexican city of San Cristobal de las Casas to say farewell to Samuel Ruiz Garcia, the Roman Catholic bishop who championed indigenous rights.

Ruiz died Monday at a hospital in Mexico City. He was 86 and had retired. Read about Ruiz's life and work in The Times' obituary.

For many Catholic Maya and residents of the southern state of Chiapas, Ruiz was known simply as "tatic," or "father" in the Tzotzil Maya dialect. Until his retirement, he served as bishop in San Cristobal de las Casas, the spiritual and political center of Maya life in the mountainous and tropical southeastern state of Chiapas.

After the Zapatista uprising erupted there in 1994, he mediated between the rebels and federal government and was accused by conservative voices of siding with the Zapatistas. He was sometimes called Bishop of the Poor or Red Bishop.

Ruiz's ecclesiastical work grew out of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin America after the Second Vatican Council, which he attended. He attempted to fend off rising Protestant movements among the Maya by adapting Roman Catholic practices to local customs, such as relying more heavily on male lay workers because married men with children often command more respect than celibate priests.

The bells of the San Cristobal de las Casas cathedral began calling at dawn Wednesday for the funeral Mass. Mostly indigenous mourners gathered on the esplanade before the cathedral, many with lighted candles and praying. Ruiz will be buried in a crypt beneath the church's main altar.

Watch these two video reports from El Universal, in Spanish, on farewells to Samuel Ruiz.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Bishop Samuel Ruiz walks with villagers to attend Mass in the Chiapas town of Benito Juarez in 1997. Credit: Pascual Gorriz / Associated Press


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