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Category: politics

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

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.

Continue reading »

'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: Animalpolitico.com

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.

Continue reading »

Calderon calls on U.S. society to curb its drug use

Felipe calderon press conference

The White House on Friday issued a rare statement by U.S. President Obama on the deadly attack against civilians in a casino in northern Mexico, while President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered sharp words on American complicity in the violent conflict that has left tens of thousands dead in his country.

Obama's statement said:

I strongly condemn the barbaric and reprehensible attack in Monterrey, Mexico, yesterday. On behalf of the American people, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this difficult time. 

The president called Mexico's campaign against organized crime groups "a brave fight" and said the U.S. "will remain a partner in this fight." The statement renewed a consistent American commitment since President George W. Bush's administration to support Calderon, in office since late 2006, and his government's efforts against powerful drug cartels.

On Friday, Calderon visited the site of the attack that killed more than 50 gamblers and employees at the popular Casino Royale in Mexico's wealthiest city. Calderon again issued a call to the U.S. to do more to tackle the American demand for drugs and the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.

In the prepared remarks released by the president's office, Calderon said the extortion-related attack in Monterrey was due to one primary factor, "the movement and sale of drugs to the United States." Calderon went on (link in Spanish):

Part of the tragedy that Mexicans are living has to do with the fact that we are alongside the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and at the same time, the biggest vendor of weapons in the world, which pays billions of dollars every year to the criminals who supply them with narcotics.

These ... dollars end up arming and organizing the criminals, and places them in their service and against the citizens.

This is why it is my duty, also, to make a call to the society, the Congress, and the government of the United States. I ask them to reflect on this tragedy that we Mexicans and many other countries in Latin America are living, as a consequence, in great part, to the insatiable consumption of drugs in which millions and millions of Americans participate.

Separately, the Obama administration is facing domestic political pressure over the secret gun-tracking program dubbed Fast and Furious, which resulted in hundreds of weapons being "walked" into Mexico and then lost, fueling drug-related violence. Read recent coverage in The Times of Operation Fast and Furious here and here.

Since 2007, when Bush and Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has sent almost $1.5 billion in aid to Mexico for its fight against the cartels, a foreign-aid package similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia that sought to help that South American nation fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.

RELATED:

Searchers comb torched ruins of casino where 52 died

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Emails to White House didn't mention gun sting

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

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, along with First Lady Margarita Zavala and top officials, Friday, August 26, 2011. Credit: Presidencia.gob.mx

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.

Continue reading »

Cuban court upholds jail sentence for American Alan Gross

 Gross

Cuba's highest court on Friday upheld a 15-year jail sentence for American sub-contractor Alan Gross, ending his legal recourse in a case that has stoked tension between Washington and Havana.

Gross, a resident of Maryland, was arrested in 2009 after he took communications equipment to the island nation as part of a project funded by USAID. Cuban authorities view those activities as an effort to destabilize the Communist government. Gross, 62, denied the accusation.

The White House, after the ruling was announced, demanded that Gross be released on humanitarian grounds.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Alan Gross shown with his wife Judy before he traveled to Cuba. Credit: Associated Press.

 

 

 

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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 »

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