La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Media

'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped


Two people jailed in Mexico's Veracruz state and charged with terrorism because of a series of alarmist tweets were freed Wednesday. Authorities dropped the charges, and the pair walked out of prison to cheering supporters.

"Thank God that freedom of expression won," Maria de Jesus Bravo, a local journalist and radio commentator, said to the crowd (link in Spanish). She and Gilberto Martinez Vera, a math teacher, spent nearly four weeks in jail after they sent out Twitter messages about a supposed attack on a primary school by drug gangs. 

Authorities contended their messages sowed panic among frantic parents. The pair was arrested and charged with terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carried a penalty of up to 30 years in jail.

The case outraged human rights and free-speech advocates and cast a spotlight on Mexicans' increasing reliance on social media networks for information about violence in their hometowns -- and its potential for abuse. With traditional journalists and other sources of information often silenced by intimidation or bribes, microblogging sites sometimes fill the void. But they also often spread false rumor.

The lawyer for Martinez and Bravo, Fidel Ordonez, confirmed the decision of state authorities to drop all charges.

"We hope that this case serves as a watershed in opening the debate, in political, social and academic circles, over the reach of the right to free expression in current times, and with the technological tools that modernity offers," the lawyer said in a statement provided to La Plaza.

The case became something of an embarrassment for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte. On Tuesday, he pushed through a new law that would allow prosecution of rumormongers on the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. This seemed to open the door to releasing Bravo and Martinez.

Early Wednesday, Duarte, dealing with a new crisis of 35 slain men and women dumped in Veracruz city, announced that the charges against the two tweeters would be dropped. Although there was the chance that they might face prosecution under the new law, Veracruz Interior Secretary Gerardo Buganza said that would not be the case.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Maria de Jesus Bravo and Gilberto Martinez walk to freedom. Credit: EFE.




Veracruz panic started before 'terrorist' tweets, reports say

Twitter users jailed veracruz Cracks are appearing in the case against the Twitter users in Mexico accused of terrorism for spreading rumors of an attack.

Local reports and claims suggest that the "panic" that spread over rumors of child abductions at school campuses started at least two hours before the online messages that could put a man and woman behind bars for 30 years.

The Veracruz government has not responded to the claims. 

One news story said the rush started after principals began calling parents to ask them to fetch their children, contributing to the swirling confusion in a city on edge over an increase in narco-related violence.

This video report in Spanish by the local Televisa affiliate shows parents running to reach campuses after they received calls from administrators. "They told us to come for our children because there could be some kind of attack, that it wasn't official," one parent said on camera.

No attack was actually confirmed, but earlier in the day a car caught fire near one Veracruz school and reports of a helicopter flying near another campus reportedly ignited the rush to yank kids from classes just days after the start of the school year (link in Spanish).

On Thursday and Friday, the Veracruz state interior secretary's office and the Education Ministry did not respond to repeated calls and emailed questions from La Plaza requesting official verification of what happened on the morning of Aug. 25.

Gov. Javier Duarte's administration released several statements after the incident saying it would go after all "cyber-terrorists" in Veracruz through its new "cyber-police" force. (Government statements in Spanish are here and here.)

The day after the incident, while authorities located and arrested the second so-called Twitter terrorist, state education authorities toured campuses and reassured principals and parents that all was in order. Duarte, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, spoke at a breakfast sponsored by the state teacher's union and called for "responsibility" and unity in Veracruz society.

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The week in Latin America: His defense is cheese

Jonas Larrazabal cash screen grab

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:

Corruption scandal grows in Monterrey with cheese claim

The mayor of Monterrey -- Mexico's affluent city in mourning over the casino attack that left 52 dead -- has a brother who is apparently a cheese salesman and receives payments at blackjack tables at the rear of casinos. At least, that's how Manuel Jonas Larrazabal, brother of  Mayor Fernando Larrazabal, attempted to explain videos that surfaced this week showing him receiving bundles of cash at Monterrey casinos (link in Spanish).

The videos suggest corruption ties between Monterrey's political class and the casinos that have proliferated there and are considered magnets for organized crime, including the Casino Royale, which was attacked by suspected Zetas in the extortion-related firebombing that shocked the country. Local firefighters say exits were blocked, contributing to the high death toll. The owner of the Casino Royale has fled the country, authorities said.

Jonas Larrazabal, proved not to be a cheese salesman in any capacity, has been detained for questioning (link in Spanish). The mayor said he could not be held responsible for his sibling's actions.

2 female journalists found slain in Mexico City

The attacks on, threats against and killings of journalists that have risen in Mexico's drug war made a troubling entry to the relatively safe capital with the discovery Thursday of the bodies of two female former journalists, found naked, bound, and shot to death in the rough southeastern borough Iztapalapa, reports Tracy Wilkinson in The Times. 

Ana Marcela Yarce Viveros and Rocio Gonzalez Trapaga were linked to the muckracking news magazine Contralinea. Yarce helped found the magazine and was most recently in charge of selling advertising, a crucial role for a publication that does not receive the lucrative government ads that most others in Mexico enjoy. Gonzalez had been a reporter for media giant Televisa and was most recently working independently and also running a currency exchange booth at Mexico City's airport.

Mexico City Atty. Gen. Miguel Angel Mancera made calls to the families of the victims and promised that their deaths would be investigated and solved, and Congress held a moment of silence for the slain women, La Jornada reports (link in Spanish).

2 held on terrorism charges in Veracruz for tweets 

Veracruz is looking to press terrorism and sabotage charges against a man and woman who spread rumors online of an unconfirmed attack on a school, raising a host of questions about free-speech and the role of social networking sites in a drug war that has seen increasing self-censorship in the traditional news media.

The attack rumor panicked parents and prompted admonishing tweets from the Veracruz state government. But should @gilius_22 and @MARUCHIBRAVO spend 30 years behind bars for a few misinformed tweets?

Migrants return to a more prosperous Brazil

Brazil's economy is attracting migrants to return home to cash in on the strong currency and low unemployment rate, reports special correspondent Vincent Bevins from Salvador da Bahia. Brazilians are returning from the United States, Europe, and Japan as those economies struggle to regain ground after the global financial crisis.

"I never planned on leaving, really. I love it there," said Victor Bahia, 25, who had returned from California. "But my mom and everyone here kept telling me that this economy was exploding like never before, and all the work had dried up in the Bay Area. It's the same reason that the majority of the Brazilians I knew there were also leaving."

Gun scandal creeps closer to the White House

Times reporter Richard Serrano in Washington reports today that at least three officials in the White House were made aware of the failed gun-tracking program that saw hundreds of weapons "walked" into and lost in Mexico, fueling drug-related violence.

The officials who received emails about Operation Fast and Furious were Kevin M. O'Reilly, Dan Restrepo and Greg Gatjanis, all national security officials in the Obama administration. The U.S. gun bureau chief in Phoenix, where the failed operation was overseen, sought help from the White House to persuade Mexico's government to let U.S. agents recover weapons south of the border, Serrano reports.

"This is great," O'Reilly replied to one email referencing the gun operation. "Very informative."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An image from a surveillance video that shows Manuel Jonas Larrazabal, brother of Monterrey's mayor, receiving cash from a woman at a casino. Credit:

Terrorism charges for 2 in Mexico who spread attack rumor on Twitter, Facebook

Twitter users jailed veracruz The government of Veracruz state in Mexico has jailed a man and woman on charges of terrorism and sabotage after they published rumors of an unconfirmed narco attack on a school on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook (link in Spanish).

The arrests are sparking outcry from human rights groups and puzzling analysts over the question of whether Mexico is equipped to handle freedom-of-speech cases as they relate to the spiraling violence of the country's drug war.

Twitter and Facebook have become indispensable sources of news on attacks in communities where local news outlets are under the thumb of drug lords or no longer report on violent incidents. At the same time, attacks against or near schools have been reported since the start of the new school year last week, sometimes causing confusion or panic among parents.

In Veracruz, active Twitter user Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) tweeted last Thursday about a supposed attack at a primary school in the municipality of Boca del Rio, next to the city of Veracruz. Martinez Vera's original tweet on the attack said: "They took 5 kids, armed group, total psychosis in the zone." He cited a sister-in-law but later said he had misidentified the school, and then mentioned another, all of which added to the confusion.

Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) reportedly made similar statements on her Facebook account, leading to reports of panicked parents rushing to the school mentioned in their messages. Her Twitter shows inactivity since Aug. 22.

The attack account could not be confirmed by authorities. The following day, Martinez, a teacher, and Bravo, a journalist and former state bureaucrat, were arrested in their homes.

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Hotel owner sought in Dominican journalist killing

Dominican prosecutors procuraduria santo domingo

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have alleged that a hotel owner is a key conspirator behind a plan to kidnap and assassinate a prominent muckraking journalist who made allegations of links among drug traffickers, antidrug prosecutors and business leaders in the small Caribbean nation.

Jose Silvestre, publisher of the Voice of Truth weekly newspaper and host of a radio program of the same name (link in Spanish), was shot to death while four suspects attempted to kidnap him on Aug. 2 in the city of La Romana. His body was found later on a roadside east of Santo Domingo. 

Authorities suspect businessman and resort owner Matias Avelino Castro ordered Silvestre's murder and remained at large. Avelino wanted Silvestre dead after a July report in the Voice of Truth referred to the alleged criminal links of several of the businessman's associates, Dominican prosecutors said in a statement (link in Spanish). Four arrests have been made in the case, Dominican Today reported.

The Dominican Republic is becoming a key drug-trafficking route from South and Central America into the United States.

Avelino uses several aliases including Joaquin Almeida, Franklin Linaira and "Daniel." News outlets in the Dominican Republic identify him as a leader in a group known as the Samana cartel, named for the Samana peninsula where his Las Galeras resort is located (link in Spanish). That hotel's website presents it as a luxurious tropical getaway and has information in five European languages.

Silvestre was jailed for six days this year on libel charges after he published allegations linking a local antidrug prosecutor to narcotics trafficking. The journalist sometimes made criminal allegations against officials and others without sourcing the claims, the Associated Press said. Prosecutors also said they have testimony from three people who claim Silvestre was paid to publish some of his allegations.

Nonetheless, the journalist's killing has received attention from Amnesty International and other rights groups. According to a sibling, shots were fired at Silvestre's house in May, Amnesty International reported, and because of the threats against the journalist, the Dominican Republic's national press workers union had requested police protection for Silvestre, which was never granted.

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic hold a news conference on Aug. 9 detailing updates in their investigation into the death of journalist Jose Silvestre in Santo Domingo. Credit: Procuraduria General de la Republica Dominicana

Slain Veracruz reporter wasn't killed over her work, officials say

Yolanda ordaz notivar A reporter who wrote crime and police stories in the Mexican port city of Veracruz was found dead Tuesday morning, but officials made an early denial that she was killed for her newsgathering.

Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz worked at Notiver (link in Spanish), the same employer of a columnist who wrote critically about politics and was killed in an ambush in his home in late June, along with two members of his family, as The Times reported.

Yet state authorities denied in a statement Tuesday that Ordaz was killed for her "journalistic work," hinting that the motive behind her death was "links to organized crime" (link in Spanish). The statement did not elaborate.

Veracruz is a critical drug- and human-trafficking route along the Gulf of Mexico that is presumed to be controlled by the violent Zetas cartel.

Ordaz had been missing for two days and was found decapitated in the Boca del Rio municipality neighboring the Veracruz port, reports said. Her body was left with a note, a tactic often employed by cartel hitmen. The contents of the note were not immediately known.

The reporter is the third to be killed in Veracruz state this year and among more than 70 killed since 2000, according to press rights groups and media tallies.

Attacks on journalists in Mexico -- including kidnapping, torture and intimidation -- have risen since the start of the government's military-led campaign against organized crime in 2006. An international report released in June by the Committee to Protect Journalists said "anti-press violence continued to climb in Mexico, where authorities appear powerless in bringing killers to justice."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Reporter Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz. Credit: Notiver

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.

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Carmen Aristegui returns


Bowing to public pressure, the Mexican radio station that unceremoniously dumped celebrity broadcaster Carmen Aristegui a few days ago has agreed to put her back on the air. In a statement, MVS radio said its reinstatement of Aristegui "responds in a public and transparent way to the requirements of a relevant portion of listeners and citizens" (link in Spanish).

She is scheduled to return on Monday.

MVS fired Aristegui following comments she made on her daily radio program concerning speculation that President Felipe Calderon had a drinking problem. Defending her right to raise such uncomfortable questions, Aristegui told a media gathering last week that her bosses, under government pressure, demanded she read an apology. When she refused, she was fired. (The government denied it had interfered in the matter.)

As one of Mexico's best-known journalists, the incident stirred a firestorm (link in Spanish) among supporters and detractors, and her dismissal was widely condemned by media watchdog groups.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Carmen Aristegui. Credit: Cuartoscuro

Photographer Enrique Metinides artfully captured five decades of mayhem in Mexico City

Metinides 1

The old photographer spends most of his time these days in his cramped but neat Mexico City apartment, usually alone, recording footage from accidents or disaster scenes he finds on television or in movies. He is especially fond of clips of the September 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"Since I'm not working anymore, I get by doing this," Enrique Metinides said frankly one recent afternoon. "I wish I was there. I would've gone right in."

His longing is not satirical. Far from it. Metinides, now graying and 76, belongs to a rare breed: the photojournalist with an absolute, unflinching addiction to the news. By any standard he ranks among the best and most prolific.

For more than 50 years, Metinides shot too-many-to-count accidents, shootouts, fires and robberies-gone-bad for the tabloids of his hometown, the big bad capital of Mexico. He worked nearly every  day from the age of 12 -- when he was spotted by a newspaper reporter taking photos of a car accident -- until he retired in the 1990s. He listened to police scanners, rode along with ambulances and firetrucks, or sometimes arrived at harrowing scenes before the authorities.

And he often came close to death doing it, suffering over the years various heart attacks, accidents, and broken bones. Metinides was not above dropping his own equipment and throwing his hands into an especially urgent rescue effort. He recalled brashly telling editors back in his day: "Don't give me any orders or tell me what to do. I'll go out, and come back with my report."

Boy, did he.

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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.

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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