La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Mexico

Who is responsible for the casino tragedy in Mexico?

Monterrey protest

Four days after the deadly casino attack in Monterrey in northern Mexico, the owner of the burned-out Casino Royale has not emerged in public or spoken with authorities.

In fact, little is known about the owners and operators of the casino, despite initial reports (later contradicted) that said emergency exits in the establishment were blocked, contributing to the high death toll of 52. The dead included one pregnant woman, and over the weekend, as families buried their loved ones, another large demonstration against violence and insecurity took place in Monterrey (link in Spanish).

The demonstration ended in scuffles for some as activists made competing calls for the resignations of the Monterrey mayor, the Nuevo Leon state government, and President Felipe Calderon (video link in Spanish).

Nuevo Leon authorities said the investigation into the arson blaze is ongoing. On Monday, Gov. Rodrigo Medina announced the arrest of five men suspected of being involved in the attack. The suspects were identified as Zetas, the drug gang that is seeking control over Monterrey in a campaign that has spread fear and violence in the affluent industrial city.

Authorities said they were eager to speak with Raul Rocha Cantu, a Monterrey businessman identified as one of the owners of the casino. One newspaper said the casino owners had not complied with an extortion demand of 130,000 pesos a week, or about $10,000 -- common deals that often lead to brutal attacks against bars and other businesses in Monterrey.

Another report said Rocha has lived in the United States for at least the last two months, but no location was specified (link in Spanish).

In a series of interviews since Friday, the casino owners' lawyer, Juan Gomez Jayme, said attorney-client privilege would not permit him to divulge where Rocha was or whether he would present himself to Nuevo Leon authorities as they have requested (link in Spanish).

Gomez defended the establishment, saying the casino operated lawfully under municipal, state, and federal regulations. Yet questions were raised almost immediately about word of blocked emergency exits, which were reported by the chief of civil protection in Monterrey after firefighters put down the arson blaze.

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The week in Latin America: Unrest continues in Chile

Chile national strike

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:

1 dead in Chile national strike

A two-day national strike in Chile led to hundreds of injuries, more than a thousand arrests and the death of a teenage boy after violent clashes between workers and students and Chilean police. The strike was the latest large-scale demonstration challenging the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera, Chile's first non-leftist leader since the return to democracy.

What started as a student movement for education reform has grown into calls for a reshaped constitution aimed at what demonstrators call an unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America's most stable economy. Pinera on Friday invited the movement leaders to a dialogue to discuss their demands (link in Spanish). The president's approval ratings have tanked since the demonstrations started.

Casino attack leaves Mexico in mourning

The deadly casino attack in Monterrey on Thursday shocked a nation already too accustomed to narco-related violence. Most of the 52 identified victims were women in their 40s and 50s, demonstrating that gambling in Mexico is a middle-class diversion in a country where the term "terrorism" is now shifting closer to everyday life.

Presidents Barack Obama of the U.S. and Felipe Calderon of Mexico both issued statements condemning the attack, while disdain, sadness, and outrage with the current drug war lit up social networks in Mexico. Read more in recent posts here at La Plaza and in the print version of The Times.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A demonstrator aims a bottle at an armored vehicle in Santiago, Chile, August 25, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

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.


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:

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages


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

Aeromexico pilot held in Madrid on suspicion of smuggling cocaine

Aeromexico epa madrid spain cocaine

A Mexican airline co-pilot is under arrest in Spain on suspicion of attempting to smuggle 92 pounds of cocaine in his personal luggage on an Aeromexico flight he helped pilot.

The case marks the second time in nine months that Aeromexico employees have been arrested at Madrid's Barajas Airport on suspicion of smuggling cocaine after flying there on Mexico's remaining legacy airline. In December, three Aeromexico flight attendants were arrested after allegedly attempting to enter Spain with more than 308 pounds of the drug between them, as La Plaza reported.

The flight attendants, all men, were traveling as tourists but carrying Aeromexico identification. The recent arrest is considerably more serious. The suspect, Ruben Garcia Garcia, had served as first officer on an Aeromexico Boeing 777 flight to the Spanish capital from Mexico City when he was arrested Aug. 17.

In a statement posted on its website, the airline said it "deeply regretted" the arrest and that Garcia had been fired (link in Spanish). Mexico's federal transportation agency on Wednesday revoked Garcia's pilot license, and the national pilots union said it would not come to his defense (links in Spanish).

Garcia was being held at a Spanish jail while awaiting charges. Federal authorities in Mexico said they were also investigating (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A file image of a pilot and Aeromexico airliner. Credit: EPA

Panic grips fans during shooting near Mexico soccer match [Video]

It wasn't the sort of thing you expect to see during a professional soccer match: a field emptying of players in the middle of play. Within seconds of the first pops of gunfire, frightened fans ducked under their seats for cover, then thousands rushed onto the field, seeking escape, some carrying children.

The Spanish-language video above shows what happened Saturday night during a shootout that erupted outside a game in northern Mexico between the visiting Monarcas of Morelia and the host Santos Laguna in the city of Torreon, Coahuila state. Unlike recent incidents of stadium violence in California, the shootout in Mexico did not leave any dead or seriously injured. But the episode demonstrated the state of perpetual jitters that has come to define daily life for many Mexicans.

As the country's drug cartels battle each other over smuggling routes to the United States and also battle U.S.-backed government security forces, Saturday's shooting shows that Mexicans seem to face the potential threat of gunfire at anytime, anywhere.

This time it happened in Torreon, a city that has suffered a spike of massacres and gun battles since the start of the drug war in 2006. Reports said the gunfire was aimed at a police station outside the stadium, but the shots were loud and close enough to send fans into a panic caught live on television.

Just before the 40-minute mark in the Saturday Santos-Monarcas match, as seen in the video, gunfire is heard echoing through the arena, terrifying players and stands full of Torreon futbol fans.

"This doesn't sound good," the announcer says as players and referees are seen running off the field. "Let's hope this doesn't get out of control."

Torreon stadium shooting Mexico Reuters

The seconds tick, and gunfire continues. After nearly two minutes, without any apparent coordination or announcement, fans who had been ducking behind seats suddenly begin pouring onto the field, heading to a corner of the stadium away from the sound of shooting. Some younger fans are seen hopping and laughing on the turf while others are running with children in their arms. One woman is videotaped weeping.

In this Spanish-language video by El Universal, fans hiding below their seats tell others who are trying to exit, "Don't leave! Don't leave! Get down." People are heard whimpering. Here are photos.

The game between Santos and Monarcas was suspended. Torreon's mayor told reporters his city's police force is under constant attack by suspected drug cartel members, with 17 officers killed so far this year (link in Spanish). The Sinaloa and Zetas cartels are said to be fighting over the Torreon corridor.

President Felipe Calderon took to Twitter to calm Mexicans who were watching the chaos in Torreon live, saying: "The situation is under control." The president's comment sparked numerous retorts by other Twitter users, some asking: "Under control by whom?"

Details on the attack were still murky as of Monday morning. Subsequent reports said bullet holes were discovered inside the venue (link in Spanish).

Overall, Mexico's drug war has left more than 40,000 dead in almost five years, and resulted in unknown numbers of kidnapped, disappeared and internal exiles. The flow of drugs north to the United States has been unhindered despite Calderon's military-led crackdown and his government's arrest or killings of high-profile cartel targets.

Even before the weekend had ended, a song had already been written about the Torreon stadium shooting. See a report in Spanish here, with a video link to the ballad-style corrido that appeared online documenting the event.

"Let's protect the stadiums," the singer wails, "so that our little ones can have a better future."

-- Daniel Hernandez

Video credit: Univision Futbol via Youtube. Photo: Fans duck during the shootout Saturday near the Santos Laguna stadium in Torreon, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

The week in Latin America: Cattle vs. soybeans

Guachos argentina latimes

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:

Suit dismissed in Border Patrol shooting

A U.S. judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking damages for the family of a 15-year-old Ciudad Juarez boy who was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent last year, the El Paso Times reports. The death of Sergio Hernandez Guereca occurred on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, and thus out of U.S. jurisdiction, the judge overseeing the suit ruled.

Here's our La Plaza report on the June 2010 incident, in which border agent Jesus Mesa Jr. shot at a group of teens who were allegedly throwing rocks at him. Hernandez's family plans to appeal the dismissal of the case.

Trading cattle for soybeans in Argentina

Special correspondent Chris Kraul tells us about a cattle rancher in Argentina -- a nation synonymous with delicious beef -- and found that the global commodities boom is making soybean production far more lucrative for Argentina's famed gauchos.

The shift is challenging traditions in the Pampas, the wide plains that have inspired Argentine artists and writers for generations. "The Pampas are no longer the open plains with a gaucho sipping mate in the shade," one analyst told Kraul. "Now it's a green industry, motorizing the entire economy."

Peru suspends coca eradiction program

The government of Peru's recently sworn-in President Ollanta Humala has suspended a coca eradiction program, surprising U.S. envoys who seek to help countries in the region scale back the production of cocaine.

Peru says the program, which the U.S. has backed with $10 million this year, is under evaluation as the new president reviews its eradication efforts overall. The Andean nation is the second-largest producer of coca, the base material for cocaine, after Colombia.

Dominican hotel owner suspected in journalist slaying

Authorities in the Dominican Republic are searching for a hotel owner suspected of ordering the killing of a muckracking journalist who published alleged links between organized crime and anti-trafficking prosecutors. Read more in La Plaza.

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Cattle rancher Mario Caceres with his soybean crops in Argentina. Credit: Andres D'Alessandro / For The Times

Flooding washes away section of U.S. border fence

Border fence arizona sonora mexico

Forty feet of U.S.-built fence along the border with Mexico have been washed away after flooding in Arizona, prompting I-told-you-so responses from border residents who said the fencing damaged the local ecosystem and would be prone to flooding.

The section of the fence that collapsed sits along the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near the tiny port town of Lukeville in southwestern Arizona, and came down during heavy rainfall Aug. 7. Plans are underway to rebuild the damaged section, but other details were not immediately available, said Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.

"We've made operational adjustments to make sure [the area] is constantly monitored for any illicit cross-border activity," Burke told La Plaza on Wednesday. 

A news report on the Mexican side of the fence collapse showed photos of the fallen wall and said U.S. Border Patrol agents were "permanently guarding" the area (link in Spanish). Damage to streets and homes was also reported in the small village of Adolfo Lopez Mateos near Sonoyta in Sonora state (link in Spanish).

The fence, built in 2007 and 2008, was constructed without enough room for water and debris to naturally flow beneath it, the national monument's superintendent told the Arizona Daily Star. The criticism echoed concerns raised by conservationists when the plan was approved in late 2007 with a $21.3-million contract for a Kiewit construction subcontractor.

The border wall in the area essentially operated as a dam and burst with an overload of rainwater.

"The fence acts as a dam and forms a gradual waterfall," Superintendent Lee Baiza told the paper. "It starts to pile up on the bottom as the grass, the leaves, the limbs start plugging up. The water starts backing up and going higher. The higher it gets, the more force it has behind it."

Warning signs appeared in the area almost as soon as the fence went up. The international port of entry and private businesses in Lukeville flooded during rain in July 2008 because of debris buildup along the border wall, prompting a federal lawsuit, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

One conservationist said last week: "Now we know who's right."

The border wall has been controversial and problematic since Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, as The Times has found in stories on topics as diverse as the dangers the fence poses to wildlife, and Texas homes and farmland "stranded" on the wrong side of the fence in and around Brownsville.

Late last month, Homeland Security announced a $24.4-million contract for maintenance and repairs for the border fence in Arizona, reports said. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument website has photos of the fence here

-- Daniel Hernandez in San Diego

Photo: A section of the U.S. border fence with Mexico damaged during rainfall near Lukeville, Ariz. Credit:

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

Demonstrations on Mexico drug war offered look at Mexicans abroad

Montreal demonstration may 8 no mas sangre facebook

When large demonstrations in Mexico calling for an end to the drug war grew last spring, communities of citizens abroad perked up and took notice.

Chatter began popping up on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Virtual groups formed. Mexicans living abroad united around a feeling of desperation over a climbing death toll and reacted to a growing sense among Mexicans at home that the government was losing control of the situation.

By May 8, when poet Javier Sicilia led tens of thousands of demonstrators on a march to the historic heart of Mexico City, smaller demonstrations were also held in cities all over the world, including Barcelona, Spain; Buenos Aires; Madrid; Montreal, Canada; Frankfurt, Germany; and in Paris with the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance (links in Spanish).

The demonstrations not only showed that many Mexicans abroad were up-to-date with developments back home, they also offered a window into the large numbers of Mexicans making lives in other countries besides the traditional migration magnet of the United States.

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