La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Mexico

'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.




Freedom likely for Mexico's 'Twitter Terrorists'


Freedom appears likely for the two people jailed in Mexico's Veracruz state and accused of terrorism for Twitter messages they sent that allegedly sowed panic. The case has thrown a spotlight on Mexicans' increasing reliance on social media networks for information about violence in their hometowns _ and its potential for abuse.

Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) were arrested last month after using the micro-blogging site to spread rumors of an attack by drug gangs on a local primary school. They were charged with terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carry penalties of up to 30 years in jail. Human rights and social media advocates were outraged, saying the punishment hardly fit the offense.

The case snowballed into something of an embarrassment for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte. On Tuesday, he pushed through a new law that would allow prosecution of rumor-mongers on the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. Many analysts saw this as a face-saving attempt by state authorities to make the case go away.

On Wednesday, Duarte (speaking by, what else? Twitter) said the charges against Martinez, a math teacher, and Bravo, a radio commentator, would be dropped (link in Spanish). Their lawyer, Fidel Ordonez, said he expected the pair to be free by the end of the day.

Duarte may have found it especially urgent to dispose of the case given the mounting violence in Veracruz. The irony of jailing people for Twitter use while gunmen brazenly dump bodies in the middle of the city was captured in this cartoon, which shows the governor holding a tweeting bird in a cage while the streets fill with skulls and blood.

-- Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City.

Photo: Protesters demand freedom for the jailed tweeters at Tuesday's session of the Veracruz state congress. Credit: El Universal


Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

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Veracruz proposes lesser charges for Twitter terrorism suspects

Twitter supporters protest veracruz

The state of Veracruz in Mexico wants to change its penal code to apply a lower charge against the jailed Twitter and Facebook users accused of terrorism for spreading unconfirmed rumors of an attack on local schools (link in Spanish).

A proposed change in Veracruz's laws would permit the government to punish the two social-networking users now behind bars, but for a lesser offense of "disruption of public order," rather than the original charges of terrorism and sabotage. Those charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Under the government's plan, teacher Gilberto Martinez Vera and journalist Maria de Jesus "Maruchi" Bravo would be retroactively charged with a crime that isn't even on the books, a scenario that Internet and human rights activists in Mexico promptly denounced as legally unfeasible.

The crime envisioned under the proposed law would carry a sentence of one to four years, meaning that Martinez and Bravo could possibly be set free after posting bail, the Veracruz government said.

In a telephone interview with La Plaza on Monday, Veracruz Interior Secretary Gerardo Buganza affirmed that the proposed law is a response to pressure from activists who have intensified calls for the release of Martinez and Bravo on free-speech grounds.

In addition, Buganza added, the administration of Gov. Javier Duarte was also responding with its plan to calls for "benevolence" from the state's Catholic Church hierarchy (link in Spanish). Martinez and Bravo "coordinated themselves," the secretary said, to spread panic among parents in a city on edge amid an uptick in drug-related violence.

"People were so desperate to reach their children, they blocked streets, they went the wrong way down one-way streets, and in fact even in the hospitals, both public and private, doctors and nurses left the sick to go fetch their kids," Buganza said. "This is very similar to what happened in the United States during the Orson Welles radio show, when no one knew that it was not fact. This was just like that."

Buganza dismissed reports that the parental panic in the port city of Veracuz on Aug. 25 started hours before the first online messages by Martinez and Bravo. Our report last week shows cracks appeared in the case almost immediately after the pair were arrested.

"This was not a game," Buganza said. "This was orchestrated, and was an act of irresponsibility."

The suspects' supporters, meanwhile, called the plan "inconceivable." They said Martinez and Bravo would not comply with the Veracruz proposal and instead would wait for a federal judge hear their request for release on Sept. 23. A group of activists attempted on Monday to visit the suspects in prison but were rebuffed by authorities.

"It's an aberration of the law," Jesus R. Robles, a human rights activist in Mexico City, said Tuesday. "You can't have a crime without a law existing against it. You can't have laws that prosecute people retroactively."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Supporters of the so-called Twitter Terrorists gather Monday outside the state prison in Veracruz where they are being held. Credit: Cuartoscuro via CNN Mexico

More Mexico youths die from violence than car wrecks, report says

Juarez drug war big picture kids sedena

As Mexico's drug war grinds on, violent homicide has overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of death of young people in the country, reports the Mexico City daily El Universal (link in Spanish).

Government statistics reviewed by the newspaper show that in 2008 and 2009, the second and third complete years of Mexico's drug war, violent deaths of people between 15 and 29 shot up about 150%. The figures rose almost equally across various narrower age brackets within that group.

Half of those homicides occurred in five states that include some of those worst hit by the current violence: Chihuahua, Baja California, Guerrero, Sinaloa and the state of Mexico, on the border with Mexico City. Violence is now the leading cause of death among Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 29, overtaking car accidents, the report said.

The federal government's database on deaths tied to organized crime shows 1,638 young people were killed in suspected drug-related attacks in 2008, a number that rose to 2,511 in 2009 and 3,741 in 2010 (graphic link in Spanish). 

Poor education and job prospects often pull young Mexicans into the poorly paid informal economy or into organized crime. Citing a congressional report, El Universal reported in June that some 23,000 young people had been recruited into the ranks of Mexico's powerful drug cartels since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels soon after taking office in 2006 (link in Spanish). The same report said the drug war has left at least 10,000 orphans.

Separately, Mexico's drug war appears be changing young people's attitudes toward security and penal measures.

A national survey on "constitutional culture" conducted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico and released in August found that the largest segment of the population that approves the use of torture and death penalty against suspected cartel criminals was between 15 and 19 years old (link in Spanish).

According to the report, that age group has the most hard-line views on security, approving of the killing of suspected drug traffickers without trial as well as the use of torture to gain information from drug suspects.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Young people pose for a cellphone portrait at the incineration of marijuana and other drugs at a military base in Ciudad Juarez in March. Credit: Gael Gonzalez / Reuters 

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

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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'Mexico has a clear project,' presidential front-runner says

Pena nieto informe pri

The front-runner in Mexico's 2012 presidential election delivered his sixth and final state-of-the-state address in the city of Toluca this week, in an opulent political event that effectively sought to cement Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto as the heir apparent of the resurgent PRI, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"Let there be no confusion," Peña Nieto said in the capital of Mexico state, where he's served as governor since 2005. "Mexico has a clear project, which is contained in its political Constitution. What is missing is an efficient state that can make it a reality, that will put it into practice in the daily lives of all Mexicans."

Those remarks were the most cited in Mexican news reports because they veered close to the air of inevitability that the PRI is trying to establish heading into next year. The governor's address on Monday "looked like an act of acceptance of the presidential nomination," CNN's Spanish-language service said in this report

PRI governors and bureaucrats, business leaders, and figures familiar to the establishment applauded Peña Nieto after his speech inside the Teatro Morelos, as seen in this video report in Spanish. The attendees included Elba Esther Gordillo, the feared and powerful leader of the teachers union, and the PRI party chief Humberto Moreira, the former governor of Coahuila state who is now facing a federal financial probe.

Pena nieto quien Peña Nieto, the telegenic governor of the country's most populous state, has consistently led in polls on elections to be held next summer.

Although none of Mexico's major parties have decided on a candidate, for now, the conventional wisdom says Mexicans are open to a return of the former ruling party after two terms of conservative presidents who have been unable to deliver on promises of expanding and equalizing economic growth.

Another element of the unspoken appeal of a PRI presidency -- despite widespread corruption and repression of dissent during the 71 years of the party's rule -- is the assumption that a PRI president could find a way to stop the spiraling violence inflicted by Mexico's drug gangs. While visiting Washington in May, Peña Nieto said that there could be no pact with organized crime in 2012 (link in Spanish).

After last month's casino attack in Monterrey, former President Vicente Fox suggested that Mexico should seek a truce or amnesty law aimed at the country's cartels. His comments were widely dismissed and rejected by the current administration of President Felipe Calderon.

[NOTE: This post has been updated.]

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top Photo: Mexico state Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto delivers his state-of-the-state address on Sept. 5, 2011, in Toluca, Mexico. Credit: La Primera Plana / Bottom Photo: Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto. Credit: Quien

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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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