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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Ken Ellingwood

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

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:

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

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.

RELATED:

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: Presidencia.gob.mx

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Matazetas

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

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

Nine missing pollsters freed in western Mexico

All nine polling workers who had vanished while taking surveys in a violent slice of western Mexico have been freed, their employers and Mexican authorities said Wednesday morning.

Roy Campos, director of the Consulta Mitofsky polling firm, said via Twitter early this morning that six employees, missing since Saturday afternoon in the drug-plagued state of Michoacan, were "free." He did not immediately say where the workers had been held or by whom.

Several hours later, Francisco Abundis, director of a separate firm, Parametria, said in a radio interview that three of his workers who vanished Monday also were "safe and sound" after being freed by unidentified captors. All nine pollsters were working near the farming city of Apatzingan, the site of past shootouts between drug-gang gunmen and Mexican forces.

Mitofsky posted a statement [link in Spanish] thanking authorities and supporters and saying that the freed pollsters were "not part of any conflict."

In a radio interview, Michoacan's state prosecutor, Jesus Montejano, confirmed the release of the Mitofsky workers [interview in Spanish] and said the company reported that they are in "a good state of health." Montejano offered no details on who had held the pollsters, saying there had been no arrests. He said no ransom was paid. Montejano described the disappearances as "atypical."

But the disappearances were a reminder of the dangerous conditions that prevail across drug-trafficking zones in Mexico, especially in the countryside, where gunmen are effectively in charge of some areas.

Michoacan, home to the notorious La Familia and an offshoot known as the Knights Templar, holds elections in November. Both sets of pollsters were working on behalf of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party to gauge the popularity of potential candidates.

--by Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City

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

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 »

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

Guatemala declares 'state of siege' to combat Mexican drug cartel, limiting rights

Police guatemala suspects zetas coban

The brutal Mexican drug-trafficking organization known as the Zetas has made inroads in Guatemala, controlling territory near the Central American country's border with southern Mexico and prompting the Guatemalan government on Sunday to declare a "state of siege" aimed at curbing the gang's growing power.

The state of siege declaration for the northern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz in turn prompted worry among human rights activists and the Guatemalan press. The declaration allows the government to detain suspects or conduct searches without warrants, and limits public gatherings and the news media.

President Alvaro Colom's government said the state of siege -- which is just below a declaration of war -- would be in place for at least a month and could be extended to the four departments, or provinces, along the Mexican border.

Cartels from Mexico are believed to be taking over established crime rings in Guatemala and recruiting among locals, including the country's poverty-stricken indigenous groups. The Zetas -- one of Mexico's fiercest cartels -- are reportedly attempting to wrestle control of the lucrative trafficking corridor through northern Guatemala from local groups, seizing rural farms to use as depots for drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, in western Guatemala, Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel is also setting up bases, reports have said.

Continue reading »

Drug group may have set off oil blast that killed 28 in central Mexico

Residents flee puebla mexico el universal

A powerful pre-dawn pipeline explosion in a central Mexican state left at least 28 people dead on Sunday. The chief suspected cause of the blast is an illegal tap, possibly by the drug group the Zetas, as cartels increasingly attempt to steal crude and gas from state-owned oil lines.

Dozens were injured and 115 homes were damaged in what was described as a series of blasts at a pumping station in San Martin Texmelucan, a town on the main road between Mexico City and the city of Puebla, capital of Puebla state. The smoke plume that rose after the destruction was visible for much of Sunday from neighboring communities as well as in other states.

Witnesses said "rivers of fire" consumed the town's streets.

One survivor recounted how she attempted to rescue her father from a bedroom but a metal door had turned into "gum," El Universal reported (link in Spanish). The flames engulfed homes and incinerated victims, including many children.

President Felipe Calderon arrived at San Martin Texmelucan by the afternoon and met with residents. Here are photos and coverage of the incident in Spanish.

The state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said in a statement that a rapid drop in pressure on the 30-inch pipeline suggested a "clandestine tap" (link in Spanish). The line, named Nuevo Teapa, carries fuel from its origin at a port in Tabasco state on the Gulf of Mexico and heads to a refinery in Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico City, Bloomberg reported.

Pemex loses millions of barrels a year to drug groups -- primarily, the Gulf Coast-based Zetas gang -- in thefts that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The stolen fuel is believed to be trafficked by the Zetas and sold in the United States as cartels seek to diversify their criminal enterprises. The Pemex chief said Sunday that the section of pipeline that erupted in San Martin Texmelucan had been tapped at least 60 times before, and 550 cases of illegal tapping have been reported nationwide.

The Times recently looked at how the drug war has affected production at Pemex in a report in September. Pemex work sites are often attacked and raided by kidnappers, who yank away workers. In May, at least 30 men disappeared from a Pemex plant in Tamaulipas by presumed Zetas.

Sunday's incident joins other major Pemex accidents that have killed scores in Mexico, although previous disasters have been blamed on incompetence and corruption. In 1984, a massive explosion at a Pemex plant in the state of Mexico left more than 500 dead. In 1992, more than 200 died in a leak explosion in downtown Guadalajara.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Residents flee and watch as smoke rises in San Martin Texmelucan, Puebla, after the pipeline blast that left at least 28 dead. Credit: El Universal 

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