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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Obama

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:

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:

'Fast and Furious' scandal grows with revelation that Mexican cartel suspects may be paid U.S. informants

Mexico weapons seized june

Are high-profile suspects in Mexican drug cartels also paid informants for U.S. federal investigators? If so, could a brewing scandal in Washington implicate more U.S. agencies in the ongoing drug-related violence in Mexico?

Kenneth Melson, the embattled chief of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), made the earth-shaking revelation in testimony early last week, The Times reports. Melson reportedly told congressional leaders that Mexican cartel suspects tracked by his agents in a controversial gun-tracing program were also operating as paid informants for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI.

The revelation is further complicating an already tangled scandal unfolding in Washington that ties U.S. weapons to the violent drug war in Mexico. The conflict has left about 40,000 dead in 4 1/2 years. In effect, the scandal also points to a deeper involvement of the U.S. government in Mexico's drug war than the public has previously known or suspected.

Times reporters have been actively covering the ATF scandal since it broke earlier this year. Using our stories, La Plaza explains below what is at stake.

Continue reading »

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

Drug war peace march zapatistas efe

The governments of the United States and Mexico promptly rejected this week the conclusions of a high-profile international report calling for the "legal regulation" of some drugs.

In separate statements, the governments signaled that they would not back away from current strategies in the war on drugs, which in Mexico has resulted in more than 38,000 deaths in 4 1/2 years and is backed by more than $1 billion in U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative.

As The Times reported Thursday from Mexico City and Washington, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is urging governments to decriminalize drug consumption and experiment with legalization and regulation of some narcotics, especially marijuana. The report calls the 4-decade-old war on drugs a failure.

"We can no longer ignore the extent to which drug-related violence, crime and corruption in Latin America are the results of failed drug war policies," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria said in a prepared statement tied to the report's release. "Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition."

Here's the commission's website, where visitors can download the full report in English or Spanish. The commission includes a former president of Brazil, a former president of Mexico, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several business leaders.

On Thursday, as the drug-policy report was being released in New York, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a statement arguing against its recommendations.

"The Obama administration's efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety," the statement said.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon's government has consistently stated that it does not support the legalization of drugs but remains open to debate. The position was reaffirmed this week by the president's top national-security spokesman, Alejandro Piore (link in Spanish).

Piore said the Mexican government "categorically rejects the impression that in Mexico, by definition, a stronger application of the law on the part of the authorities shall result in an increase in violence on the part of the narco-traffickers."

Legalization, his statement also said, "does not do away with organized crime, nor with its rivalries and violence."

Read the full L.A. Times story on the commission's report here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Masked Zapatistas, holding signs that read "No More Blood," march in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, on May 8. Credit: EFE

Obama to visit grave of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero


President Obama is visiting Latin America this week, and on Wednesday he will make what may be the most dramatic gesture of the trip.

Obama is scheduled to pay homage to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper as he said Mass on March 24, 1980, in the early days of El Salvador's civil war. Obama's planned stop at Romero's tomb in the National Cathedral will mark the first time a U.S. president has done so, a "truly extraordinary" gesture, the Salvadoran news website El Faro said in an editorial. 

Romero's killer was a member of the death squads that worked on behalf of the side in the civil war that the U.S. government came to support against leftist guerrillas. Today, those guerrillas, recast as a political party capable of winning elections, are in power.

Obama's action demonstrates just how far the process of democracy and reconciliation has come in post-war El Salvador, the country's ambassador to the United States, Francisco Altschul, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"Monsignor Romero is a universal symbol of justice, peace, human rights and reconciliation," Altschul said. "We are incredibly satisfied and appreciative" of Obama's visit to the grave.

But reconciliation goes only so far. One person Obama will not meet with is the country's top security official, even though public security is a major topic on the agenda. Justice and Security Minister Manuel Melgar is considered by Washington to have blood on his hands, having been implicated in a guerrilla attack on a Zona Rosa sidewalk cafe in San Salvador in 1985 in which four U.S. Marines were killed along with nine civilians. Melgar's exact role is in dispute, but U.S. officials as a matter of course steer clear of him.  

-- Tracy WIlkinson in Mexico City 

Photo: Salvadoran children march with photographs of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Credit: Mauro Arias / El Faro

U.S. opens the door further on travel to Cuba

Cuba tourbus reuters

For the second time since taking office, President Obama eased restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. The relaxed rules are scheduled to take effect by the end of this week.

The policy change announced Friday will, according to the White House, promote "people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."

The changes allow students, academics and religious organizations to more freely request a trip to Cuba, as well as "specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities." In addition, people in the U.S. are now allowed to send up to $500 in remittances to Cuba every three months, or a maximum of $2000 a year. In 2009, the Obama administration eased restrictions to allow Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island.

Here's the White House announcement and the Cuba entry policy page at the U.S. State Department.

Obama relaxed rules that were imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had tightened travel rules liberalized by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, a swinging policy in consecutive U.S. governments over an issue that has confounded American interests for more than 50 years. Cuba is only 90 miles from the coast of Florida yet remains one of only a handful of Communist countries in the world.

But for how long?

A gradual string of market economy reforms have taken effect on the island. Small businesses are popping up. More tourists are arriving. A few weeks ago, a large cruise liner took port in Havana to much fanfare. More U.S. airports will be making flights available. Before, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York were allowed to originate flights destined for Cuba.

The Cuban government hailed the new travel changes as a positive step in a statement, but said they did not go far enough to ease economic pressure generated by the long U.S. trade embargo (link in Spanish).

Cuba, governed by President Raul Castro, brother to former Communist leader Fidel Castro, is mired in corruption, according to a recent Wikileak disclosure. The country also faces widespread criticism for its human rights record, despite the release last year of a group of political dissidents who were released to exile in Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Tourists ride on a double-decker bus along Havana's shorefront 'Malecon' boulevard, November 2010. Credit: Reuters

White House: Cocaine market in U.S. under 'stress'

Cocaine dealer arrested sydney herald sun

The cocaine market in the United States is under "significant stress," reports the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Cocaine production has dropped in Colombia due to recent eradication efforts, putting stress on the U.S. market in 2009, the office announced this month. And although a direct connection between data is not sufficiently made clear, use of the drug also dropped last year in the United States, where most Colombian cocaine is destined after being moved by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

"Although a wide array of data now confirm the decline in use and availability of cocaine in the United States, there are still far too many Americans using drugs that drive violence and instability in other nations," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House office. "That is why the Obama administration is working to restore balance to our drug control efforts by emphasizing demand reduction at the same time we are supporting our international allies in their efforts to curb the supply of these drugs."

Continue reading »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Erick Huerta's entire essay here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

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

Obama orders review after revelations of '40s-era Guatemala syphilis study

The White House has ordered a comprehensive review of medical research guidelines after revelations last month that the U.S. knowingly infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners and patients with syphilis or gonorrhea in the 1940s.

President Obama's directive last week to convene a Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is another acknowledgement of, as the president said, "past abuses" in U.S. medical research since medical historian Susan Reverby revealed that the U.S. Public Health Service exposed thousands in Guatemala to the sexually transmitted diseases without their knowledge or consent.

Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in early October to apologize on behalf of his government, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the research "abhorrent." Here's previous coverage in La Plaza. Here's the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services information page on the Guatemalan experiment.

Conducted between 1946 and 1948, the study in Guatemala was meant to test whether penicillin could treat syphilis and other STDs. It was led by an American doctor, John Cutler, who would later lead the infamous Tuskegee experiment in Alabama, in which African American men with syphilis were observed as the disease progressed without treatment.

Although the Guatemalan study occurred more than 60 years ago, some pharmaceutical companies have shifted their clinical trials overseas, making the question of protection of human subjects in medical research still relevant today, notes the journal Nature.

Obama's order calls for a panel to work for nine months beginning in January to examine whether federal and international regulations adequately guard subjects in medical studies supported by the U.S. government.

"While I believe the research community has made tremendous progress in the area of human subjects' protection, what took place in Guatemala is a sobering reminder of past abuses," Obama said. "We owe it to the people of Guatemala and future generations of volunteers who participate in medical research."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City


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