La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Immigration

The week in Latin America: Start-ups grow in Cuba

Cuba businesses customers ap

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:

Small businesses in Cuba

Reporting from Havana, correspondent Tracy Wilkinson examines a boom in family start-up businesses in Cuba, where President Raul Castro is slowly implementing economic reforms intent on introducing basic free-market capitalism to the Communist nation -- and that includes slashing 1 million people off the government payroll.

"Change, of course, comes in fits and starts," Wilkinson writes. "Most Cubans probably have yet to feel much in the way of new prosperity, and many among the emerging crop of fledgling entrepreneurs continue to complain of burdensome red tape and the taxes they are required to pay."

One of the novelties of a new market-friendly Cuba? Car washes.

Ex-wife presidential candidacy deflated

Guatemala's constitutional court ruled this week that the former first lady is ineligible as a candidate for the Sept. 11 presidential election, a political defeat for current President Alvaro Colom, report Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood. Sandra Torres, the former first lady, divorced Colom last spring in order to get around a rule that bars close relatives of leaders from running for the high office.

Colom's coalition is now left without an apparent candidate for an election that is only a month away. That paves a smoother first-round showing for former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who was a strong front-runner in the race even before Torres was disqualified. Perez was an officer during Guatemala's long U.S.-backed war against leftist rebels.

"Torres' coalition already had begun to abandon her," our story says. "Candidates for lower offices have distanced themselves and party activists have torn down her campaign signs."

A look at the numbers of Mexicans abroad

Did you know that 7,245 Mexicans live in France? That 4,572 Mexicans live in Italy? That 6,688 live in the United Kingdom? And 73 live in Luxembourg? (Luxembourg?) Mexico, in fact, is the biggest source of human emigration in the world, with more than 11.5 million of its citizens living outside the country, according to the World Bank.

Many live in cities that saw significant demonstrations against Mexico's drug war on May 8, a day in which Mexican nationals worldwide stepped up to protest violence that has left about 40,000 dead. Take a look at my latest La Plaza post, which follows an earlier post examining the phenomenon of internal migration in Mexico.

Daniel Hernandez

Photo: A woman waits for customers at a pizzeria in Havana. Credit: Javier Galeano / Associated Press

Internal migration flows below the radar in Mexico

Bernal queretaro monolith daniel hernandez

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

A few weeks ago, I took a late Friday night bus from Mexico City to Queretaro to visit friends.

I spent the weekend relaxing at bars, cafes and restaurants. I took a day trip to an officially designated "pueblo magico," Bernal, where an ancient stone monolith is a regional tourist draw. I finished the weekend in a crowded "college-style" bar to watch a big soccer match for Mexico over a BBQ hamburger and a Mexican lager, with U.S. school pennants hanging overhead.

Queretaro is welcoming and clearly prosperous. Over two days, I met Mexicans who had moved there from Chiapas, Veracruz, Guanajuato and elsewhere.

"Why do you live here?" I asked a guy outside a bar one night.

"They pay better than in Veracruz," the fellow replied. "And, well ... it's safe, right?"

The exchange stuck with me. Contradictions abound in Mexico, especially when it comes to the country's current overall stability.

Mexico's economy is growing at a healthier pace than that of the United States and has a lower official unemployment rate (5.3%) than its northern neighbor (9.2%), though the joblessness rate is deceptive because it doesn't include millions of Mexicans who work in the poorly paid informal economy as sidewalk vendors, day laborers and the like. 

Yet, at the same time, Mexico is home to more than 52 million people living in poverty, nearly half the national population. That figure is up by 3 million from three years ago, according to an independent government study released Friday and reported in The Times. Overall, Mexico's recovery from the 2009 global recession is among the slowest in Latin America, a disappointing figure after a decade of free-market policies under federal governments led by the National Action Party, or PAN.

In other words, realities on the ground in Mexico are often more complicated and contradictory than the headlines or government propaganda can tell us.

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


Awaiting DREAM Act, illegal student in U.S. compares himself to Superman

Erickhuerta_zocalo "Once, when I was seven, I fell asleep in Michoacan and woke in Boyle Heights. No joke."

This is how a young writer and journalist in East Los Angeles named Erick Huerta begins telling his story. Huerta, 26, is a student and undocumented immigrant, stuck in a legal and cultural bind between two countries. He was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, like many others whose parents were lured to the U.S. by economic prospects. He finished high school, entered college and is now as culturally "American" as anyone else.

Should he be deported to a country he doesn't know, or should his status be normalized under the DREAM Act?

The proposed law, built around an energetic grass-roots effort, would give certain undocumented students like Huerta -- or those entering the U.S. military -- conditional legal status in the United States.

Huerta, in an essay published by Zocalo Public Square, writes that his experience has made him analogous to ... Superman? He explains:

I guess I should be inspired by Superman, arguably the most accomplished of all "illegal aliens." Literally, in his case, as he came from another planet as an infant because his parents wanted to give him a better life when his home world was annihilated. He landed on earth and was raised in the Midwest by a loving couple to become a symbol for truth, justice and the American way. Last time I checked, he was still working at the Daily Planet, getting by under the name of "Clark Kent." I hope that the e-verify system doesn't catch up with him someday; where would ICE deport him?

Huerta uses humor to address a serious and complex issue that directly affects his future and that of thousands like him. But the DREAM Act's own future is uncertain. It's had a long and nail-biting journey through Congress, tabled and revived several times, a political ping-pong ball in the bitter and often hate-filled debate over reforming the country's "badly broken immigration system."

Those are President Obama's exact words, in a statement congratulating the House of Representatives for passing the DREAM Act Dec. 8. Despite strong grass-roots opposition to the DREAM Act among Republicans, the House passed it by a vote of 216 to 198. Obama and most Democrats in Congress want the DREAM Act passed before the end of this year's lame-duck session. The bill is now before the Senate.

A Republican filibuster would require all of the chamber's 57 Democrats to join at least three Republicans or independents to pass the DREAM Act. The bill is currently delayed pending a future vote.

Read Erick Huerta's entire essay here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: An artist's rendering of Erick Huerta, "the intrepid reporter."  Credit: Zocalo Public Square

Morelia Film Festival: Danny Trejo and 'Machete' draw raves

Danny trejo morelia

Actor Danny Trejo received perhaps the wildest celebrity welcome so far at this year's Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. Trejo appeared at the festival for the premiere of "Machete," the Robert Rodriguez-directed pulp-action flick about an ex-cop from Mexico who leads an uprising against immigrant-bashers in Texas.

Throngs of fans crowded along the red carpet at the cineplex in central Morelia and inside the theater where the film screened. Moviegoers were packed along the aisles, sitting and standing, for the film and the question-and-answer session that followed. 

"Machete" was not in competition nor having its world premiere at Morelia, yet it drew the most buzz on social networking sites and among the many Mexican and foreign journalists who seized on Trejo's personal history of overcoming odds to become a Hollywood star. The movie's depiction of the immigration debate in the United States -- including a conspiracy to demonize immigrants for the purposes of drug-smuggling, and an underground network of immigrant advocates led by a figure named She -- also drew cheers and applause.

"I think being an action hero implies the responsibility to help your compatriots, telling kids to stay away from drugs, to not take steroids," Trejo said in an interview with the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish). "What I like about Machete is that he's a common man, he could be the mechanic on the block or whoever. I like that he assumes that responsibility. I love this character."

Trejo, who showed up along with his son (who also appears in "Machete"), announced after the screening that a sequel is on the way (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Actor Danny Trejo signs autographs Wednesday night in Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Morelia International Film Festival

Morelia Film Festival: Collection of shorts looks at Mexican Revolution through contemporary lens

Revolucion still seventh alvarado

One film is about a woman who is so desperate to get cosmetic dental surgery that she sues her supermarket employer because she is paid partly in vouchers she can only redeem at her job. Another is about a young Mexican American woman who must find a way to "repatriate" her dead father back to his small village in Mexico, as many migrants do in their passing.

Another film -- by filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, son of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- is a simple, surreal panorama: Revolution-era rebels on horseback riding in slow motion through the iconic crossroads of immigrant life in Los Angeles, often contested, 7th and Alvarado streets.

"Revolucion," a collection of 10 films each under 10 minutes long, by 10 young and up-and-coming Mexican filmmakers, is a meditation on a pertinent theme in today's Mexico. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution, a conflict that sought to free the poor from exploitation and disenfranchisement under the regime of Porfirio Diaz.

One hundred years later, these shorts seem to say, the situation isn't much better for millions of Mexicans who live below the poverty line, or the millions more who have abandoned Mexico altogether to seek economic opportunity in the United States.

After the North American Free Trade Agreement, after the fall of one-party rule, after that exodus, what does "revolution" look like today?

The collection is a collaborative production by Canana, the company founded by actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. It had its world premiere earlier this year at Berlinale 2010 and premiered in Mexico on Sunday night at the Morelia International Film Festival. The filmmakers who were asked to participate in the project were given a single task: Make a film that expresses what "revolution" means to you.

The result is a wide array of styles and stories, yet each is told from a perceptively personal angle. That was the idea, Luna said during a news conference in Mexico City Sunday morning.

"It's time to give it a personal touch, because for too long they've imposed upon us what the revolution means, and very few times are we given a space for personal expression," the actor said.

Luna and Garcia both offer shorts in "Revolucion," as does Carlos Reygadas, acclaimed director of "Japon," and Amat Escalante, director of "Los Bastardos."

In the short "Lindo y querido," by Patricia Riggen, Elisa is a Mexican American girl whose father's last wish before dying was to be buried in his hometown in Mexico. She resists the idea at first, but the prodding of an aunt, and the powerfully symbolic heirloom of a revolution-era pistol left in her family, cause Elisa to reconsider.

"I live in Los Angeles. When they ask what revolution means for me, well, it means a bunch of Mexicans living in the United States, no?" Riggen said an interview with La Plaza. "And I ask myself, Why? Why there are so many Mexicans there? Did the revolution triumph or fail?"

Riggen's most recent major feature, "La Misma Luna," also deals with the pressures applied on families by borders and migration. This time, she said, she's looking at "those who return."

"I've realized that Mexicans, despite the fact that they spend an entire life in the United States, they wish to return to Mexico to be buried," she said. "What power does that land have, that they wish to return to a country that did not support them, that did not give them many of their fundamental rights? That's where my story comes from."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: A still from 'La 7th Street y Alvarado,' by Rodrigo Garcia. Credit: Canana films

'Biutiful,' a stark look at the lives of migrants, opens film festival in Mexico

Biutiful morelia set joseharo

The Morelia International Film Festival opened here Saturday night with a lavish inaugural screening and the Mexican premiere of "Biutiful," the new film by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that is picked to represent Mexico at the 2011 Academy Awards.

The latest feature by Inarritu, director of "Babel," is another sobering look at the struggles of migrants in a globalized world. "Biutiful" stars Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem as Uxbal, who lives in a poor Barcelona neighborhood where he handles money and illegal work for African and Chinese migrants. Bardem's character, who also lives with the ability to communicate with the recently dead, must suddenly confront his own imminent passing.

The story, characteristic of Inarritu's other films such as "Amores Perros," is violent and filled with human despair.

That "Biutiful" was not filmed in Mexico, does not take place in Mexico and is a co-production with companies in Spain has sparked debate over whether it was a suitable choice to represent this country at the next Oscars. Inarritu, addressing reporters at a news conference Saturday afternoon, said his film is a story about a man and his love for his two children, as well as a journey toward death, therefore making it a universal film that transcends conventional borders.

He also compared his work to that of legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"Sixty years ago Bunuel came to Mexico and filmed 'Los Olvidados' ['The Forgotten Ones'], and now I get to go to Spain and film the forgotten ones, who are the migrants," Inarritu said.

The Morelia festival, now in its eighth year, has quickly built a profile as the most prestigious and sought-after platform for new cinema in Mexico. This year's invited special guests include celebrated filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state, has a sparkling colonial core with 17th century churches and lush plazas and parks. The festival is packed with screenings, round-table events, exhibits and parties, and runs through Oct. 24.

Check out the program here and live reactions at Twitter with the hashtag #FICM. La Plaza will be here all week, checking out new Mexican features and documentaries and bringing you daily updates.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: Actor Javier Bardem, seated, and filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, standing at right, on the set of the film "Biutiful." Credit: Menage Atroz films

A migrant's police shooting death in Los Angeles resonates in remote Guatemala

Guatemala westlake lapd shooting funeral victim

In the highland Mayan village of Xexac, in Guatemala, the body of Manuel Jaminez Xum finally arrived for burial, the flags of Guatemala and the United States draped over his casket. Jaminez was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer on Sept. 5 after allegedly brandishing a knife and threatening others, in an incident that sparked several protests and has become a symbol of the sometimes tense relationship between police and immigrant communities in Los Angeles.

The shooting occurred in the dense, low-income and heavily Central American L.A. neighborhood of Westlake, near where Los Angeles police violently broke up a 2007 immigrant-rights demonstration. Reporting from Guatemala, L.A. Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez and special correspondent Alex Renderos tell us that Jaminez's death also helps illustrate the waves of human migration that have reshaped communities not only in the United States but also in Guatemala.

"Ten years ago, many in Xexac had never seen Guatemala City, let alone the United States," Bermudez writes.

Then one man in Xexac went to L.A., and over the next decade, 60 to 70 men followed, paying between $3,500 and $5,000 to smugglers for the treacherous journey through Mexico and over the U.S.-Mexico border. Jaminez left the village in 2003.

They were lured by the prospect of earning in dollars and the possibility of improving the lives of their relatives. But Los Angeles was an entirely different world, difficult and alienating. When construction work took a downturn in 2007, Jaminez began struggling to pay his share of rent for the tiny Westlake studio he shared with 11 other men. His debt with his lender in Guatemala shot up to $20,000.

Jaminez then turned to alcohol. Read the rest of the story here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Isabel Marroquin Tambriz, center, at the Sept. 20 funeral of her husband, Manuel Jaminez Xum, in Xexac, Guatemala. Credit: Esmeralda Bermudez / Los Angeles Times

Detention centers isolate illegal immigrants and deny them rights, report says

Immigration detention facility ap
Illegal immigrants held in federal detention centers in the United States are mostly isolated from immigration attorneys and not informed on their rights, a new study finds. The Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center surveyed detention centers nationwide and found that 78% of detainees were prohibited calls to lawyers.

Our story from the Tribune Washington Bureau reports: "More than 80% of detainees were in facilities that were isolated and beyond the reach of legal aid organizations, resulting in heavy caseloads of 100 detainees per immigration attorney, the survey found. Ten percent of detainees were held in facilities in which they had no access at all to legal aid groups."

The full report is available here.

Immigration detention facilities place detainees in isolation, putting their health and life at risk, rights advocates have said. Such findings have been reached by Amnesty International (see the report "Jailed Without Justice") and Human Rights Watch (see the report "Detained and Dismissed").

Numerous cases of deaths inside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention system have garnered national media attention. A transgender woman, Victoria Arellano, died in detention in 2007 in San Pedro, Calif., for lack of access to AIDS medications. Picked up at traffic stops or workplace raids, immigrants are detained in any of the 350 federal centers, which are mostly located in sparsely populated areas. Detainees are often transferred far from their attorneys or doctors, and from their homes and families.

Detention and deportation of undocumented migrants in the United States has risen under President Obama, but the ProPublica news organization recently reported that policy is also shifting to reducing deportations of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes. Obama said during his presidential campaign that comprehensive immigration reform would be one of the top priorities of his first year in office. But the Obama administration has put the issue on the table for lack of reliable support among Republicans in Congress and because of division within the White House over immigration reform.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. Credit: Associated Press

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


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Recent News
Introducing World Now |  September 23, 2011, 8:48 am »
'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped |  September 21, 2011, 7:03 pm »
Freedom likely for Mexico's 'Twitter Terrorists' |  September 21, 2011, 11:00 am »



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