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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Religion

The week in Latin America: A smuggler named John

John ward bartletti

The Times this week published a four-part series by reporter Richard Marosi on the U.S. face of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, considered one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. Here are highlights from the series, and other stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week:

Welcome to Calexico

In the first part of the series, Marosi introduces readers to a Drug Enforcement Administration operation tracking Sinaloa cartel distributors in Southern California. The article highlights the exhaustive surveillance strategies that U.S. anti-drug authorities employ to track smugglers, which includes permitting loads of drugs to pass from Mexico in order to gather further intelligence on suspects.

The tactics of psychics

"Mexican psychics have been known to rub white pigeons up and down a person to absorb negative forces before releasing the birds, and any evil, into the sky," reads part two of the series. "They suggest herbal baths and sometimes add hallucinogenic morning glory seeds to teas they serve their clients." Fascinating and creepy stuff.

Meet John, a cartel drug pilot

John Charles Ward made a living out of piloting drugs from Mexico into the United States, as part three of the series describes. Ward, now serving a sentence in a federal prison in California, managed to escape the law for decades. He tells Marosi of his high-flying times: "It wasn't just a smuggling job. It was my career."

The cartel flow continues

The final part of Marosi's series recounts a confrontation between a U.S. cocaine distributor and his boss in Sinaloa, a top cartel lieutenant. While the DEA operation targeting them eventually netted major arrests and seizures of cash and drugs, Marosi writes: "More than four years later, the cartel continues pumping drugs through the Calexico border crossing."


In other news:

'El Ponchis' is sentenced in Mexico

It was another week of horrific incidents in Mexico's drug war. A newspaper reporter was found decapitated in Veracruz. Shootouts in the municipal prison in Ciudad Juarez left 17 dead and fueled a spat between the local police chief and federal forces. And Edgar Jimenez, also known as "El Ponchis," was sentenced in Morelos, a reminder that Mexico's 4-1/2-year conflict is breeding ever-younger victims and perpetrators. 

Humala assumes presidency in Peru

Ollanta Humala, a leftist former military officer, was sworn in as president of an increasingly prosperous Peru on Thursday. Among his first appointments was naming Susana Baca, the celebrated Afro-Peruvian singer who was recently profiled by The Times, as his government's culture minister.

Guatemala election heats up

From Guatemala City, special correspondent Alex Renderos looks at the state of the campaign to replace President Alvaro Colom in elections in September. More than 30 people have been killed in campaign-related violence, a troubling figure, Renderos reports. One of the candidates is Colom's ex-wife; Sandra Torres, the former first lady, had to divorce her husband in order to be eligible to run.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Convicted cartel smuggling pilot John Charles Ward, in federal prison in California in 2009. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A giant 'Christ of the Pacific' statue is erected in Peru

Alan Garcia Christ Pacifico Peru

The outgoing president of Peru, Alan Garcia, is bringing a gargantuan statue of Jesus to a hill overlooking the capital, Lima.

The "Christ of the Pacific" monument, set to be inaugurated later this month on the Morro Solar hill in southern Lima, is a 120-foot structure featuring a white statue of Jesus that is 72 feet tall. The statue,  made of resin, has its arms outstretched, resembling the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

According to reports, Garcia described the project as a personal dream and a "gift" to Peru before he leaves office in late July. "I want it to be a figure that blesses Peru and protects Lima," the president said (links in Spanish). 

The monument has sparked controversy, with opponents accusing Garcia of having a conflict of interest because he co-funded the project with an organization that holds contracts with Peru's government, reports said. President-elect Ollanta Humala, who assumes office on July 28, has suggested he supports the project, saying it will improve the city's panorama.

But Peruvians appeared split over the new addition to Lima's landscape, with some questioning the wisdom of using a religious symbol and others doubting the president's sincerity. "A monument as great as his humility," said one online commenter at El Comercio.

"Christ of the Pacific" is set to be inaugurated June 29.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian President Alan Garcia oversees final preparations for the Christ of the Pacific monument in Lima on June 19. Credit: Government of Peru

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

Mourners in Mexico say farewell to Samuel Ruiz, priest who mediated Zapatista conflict

Samuel ruiz obit latimes

Mourners this week have been streaming into the cathedral in the Mexican city of San Cristobal de las Casas to say farewell to Samuel Ruiz Garcia, the Roman Catholic bishop who championed indigenous rights.

Ruiz died Monday at a hospital in Mexico City. He was 86 and had retired. Read about Ruiz's life and work in The Times' obituary.

For many Catholic Maya and residents of the southern state of Chiapas, Ruiz was known simply as "tatic," or "father" in the Tzotzil Maya dialect. Until his retirement, he served as bishop in San Cristobal de las Casas, the spiritual and political center of Maya life in the mountainous and tropical southeastern state of Chiapas.

After the Zapatista uprising erupted there in 1994, he mediated between the rebels and federal government and was accused by conservative voices of siding with the Zapatistas. He was sometimes called Bishop of the Poor or Red Bishop.

Ruiz's ecclesiastical work grew out of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin America after the Second Vatican Council, which he attended. He attempted to fend off rising Protestant movements among the Maya by adapting Roman Catholic practices to local customs, such as relying more heavily on male lay workers because married men with children often command more respect than celibate priests.

The bells of the San Cristobal de las Casas cathedral began calling at dawn Wednesday for the funeral Mass. Mostly indigenous mourners gathered on the esplanade before the cathedral, many with lighted candles and praying. Ruiz will be buried in a crypt beneath the church's main altar.

Watch these two video reports from El Universal, in Spanish, on farewells to Samuel Ruiz.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Bishop Samuel Ruiz walks with villagers to attend Mass in the Chiapas town of Benito Juarez in 1997. Credit: Pascual Gorriz / Associated Press

Rival Santa Muerte church claims captured 'bishop' does not represent the Mexican death cult

David romo santa muerte bishop pgjdf

It was a hard fall for the formerly high-riding "bishop" of the most famous Santa Muerte "church" in Mexico City, David Romo.

Romo, pictured second from right in the top row of the official photo above, stands charged along with several others with participating in a kidnapping and money-laundering ring. His name is familiar to reporters in Mexico City. Romo founded and led a prominent "sanctuary" dedicated to the Santa Muerte death saint. The skeletal "little white girl" figure, as she is affectionately called, is venerated by drug traffickers in Mexico but also by regular people on the margins of society.

Romo's church has had several name changes over the years; currently it's known as the National Sanctuary for the Angel of the Holy Death. Usually wearing a frock, he spent years at the forefront of the growing cult, giving interviews to foreign reporters (including this blogger) as a self-proclaimed bishop.

Continue reading »

Dilma Rousseff poised to take Brazil's presidency in second round

Dilma rousseff brazil elections reuters

Millions of Brazilians will once again go to the polls Sunday to pick a successor to the highly popular president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. As expected, Lula's protege, Dilma Rousseff, is leading in last-minute polls over Jose Serra, the former governor of Sao Paolo state. Rousseff served as Lula's chief of staff and is running as a continuity candidate. In the first round of voting Oct. 3, Rouseff fell short of a majority but bested Serra with 47% of the vote to his 33%.

If elected, Rousseff would be Brazil's first woman president and oversee of a surging global economy that is also Latin America's largest.

Abortion became an issue in the final stretch of the campaign. Third-party Green candidate Marina Silva energized religious voters in the first round with her opposition to abortion, taking 19% of votes. Silva remained neutral in the second round but forced social and morality issues to the forefront of the campaign as it drew on.

In debates, both Rousseff and Serra said they would be against changing Brazil's ban on abortion if elected, although videos surfaced in which Rousseff apparently signalled she'd support its decriminalization. Both candidates also said they were against gay marriage. "We have shown in the elections that we have a lot of power," an evangelical preacher told BBC News.

Even Vatican City chimed in on the topic. On Thursday Pope Benedict XVI urged bishops in Brazil to remind voters of the church's opposition to abortion.

Yet voters seemed to have made up their mind as Sunday approaches. In Brazil's electoral "Ohio," the state of Minas Gerais, Serra supporters are not optimistic about last-ditch efforts for an upset. Rousseff has successfully shifted attention back to the successes of her benefactor, Lula, and is currently pulling away from Serra with a 10-point lead, Reuters said.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Brazilian Presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff. Credit: Reuters

Mexico City mayor sues Guadalajara bishop over gay marriage remarks

Marcelo ebrard notimex Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of Mexico City on Wednesday filed a civil suit claiming defamation against Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara, upping the ante in a high-profile political spat over gay marriage in Mexico that pits emboldened secular institutions against the country's influential Roman Catholic clergy (link in Spanish).

The suit comes after Ebrard demanded that Sandoval retract suggestions made over the weekend that Mexico's Supreme Court justices were bribed for their recent landmark rulings in favor of gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples in the Mexican capital.

Sandoval made the allegations on Sunday during an event in Aguascalientes state. He also used a slur against gays while decrying the recent high court decisions that were called victories for the gay-rights community, as L.A. Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson analyzes in this story.

Church authorities were not backing down. Sandoval said Monday he would not retract his comments, and the archdiocese in Guadalajara later said it had proof of the allegations against the Supreme Court justices (link in Spanish). Statements in support were issued from the archdiocese in Mexico City, while the Bishops' Conference of Mexico also said it supports Sandoval.

In the secular institutional corner, the Supreme Court censured Sandoval's statements unanimously, and Ebrard issued a stark warning to the highest-ranking prelate of Mexico's second-largest city: "We live in a secular state, and here, whether we like it or not, the law rules the land," Ebrard said, according to La Jornada (links in Spanish). "The cardinal must submit to the law of the land, like all other citizens of this country."

By wide majorities, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of gay marriages in Mexico City, ruled that those marriages must be recognized in Mexico's 31 states, and upheld a portion of the Mexico City gay-marriage law that permits same-sex couples to adopt children.

Continue reading »

Mexico Supreme Court upholds gay marriage law

LATimes gay marriage ruling mexico Mexico's Supreme Court has upheld a landmark law permitting same-sex marriages in Mexico City, rejecting  the conservative federal government's claim that the law is unconstitutional because it threatens the institution of the family.

The justices, in an 8-2 decision, with one jurist absent,  cast their opinions on one of two grounds: First, individual states (including the Federal District, as Mexico City is also known) can define or limit marriage through their legislatures; or second, Mexico's constitution is vague on the definition of "family."

Mexico City's law is an anomaly in the heavily Roman Catholic country, where the church hierarchy and the ruling center-right National Action Party (PAN) have vehemently opposed same-sex marriage.

Thursday's ruling was greeted as another victory in the international gay-rights community and came the day after a U.S. federal judge struck down Proposition 8, a ballot initiative in California that banned same-sex marriages there. Argentina last month passed a sweeping same-sex marriage law, making it the first country in Latin America to give gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals.

Mexico City's legislative assembly voted in December to allow same-sex marriages within the Federal District. An estimated 300 gay and lesbian couples have been married since the law took effect in March.

The Mexican Supreme Court will rule next week on another challenge to Mexico City's law: whether married gay couples can adopt children. The court is also slated to decide whether same-sex marriages from Mexico City should be recognized and protected in Mexico's states.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Mexico City awaiting ruling. Credit: Associated Press

Cuba's Raul Castro meets the cardinal


A rare meeting has taken place between Raul Castro, Cuba's communist president, and the head of the Roman Catholic Church on the island nation.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other leaders of the church discussed "issues of mutual interest" with Castro, official Cuban media reported. The encounter occurred Wednesday but wasn't reported until now. Cuba's Granma newspaper carried a photograph of Castro, in military green, shaking hands with Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia, head of the Cuban Bishops Conference. The BBC quoted church sources as saying the leaders talked about imprisoned dissidents with an eye to next month's visit to Cuba of the Vatican's foreign secretary, Dominique Memberti. 

Ortega is widely credited with easing tensions over a recent slew of anti-government protests. The Cuban-born cardinal, who is also archbishop of Havana, brokered a deal between authorities and the female relatives of political prisoners that allowed the so-called Ladies in White to resume weekly demonstrations free of harassment.

Bishops Conference spokesman Jose Felix Perez told Reuters: "This is the first time the conference has had such a high-level meeting," adding, "It was especially relevant in the context that the church has recently been working to mediate solutions to a number of difficulties in society."

Relations between the church and Cuba's leaders were strained for years but have improved since the 1990s, especially after the government loosened restrictions on religion and Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Cuban President Raul Castro meets with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia in Havana. Credit: Granma.

Mexico City Archbishop Norberto Rivera named in L.A. abuse suit

Norberto Rivera An unnamed Mexican man filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles this week against two of the most well-known and influential Catholic cardinals in North America: L.A.'s Roger Mahony and Mexico City's Norberto Rivera Carrera. Using an obscure law that enables foreigners to seek justice in the United States against human rights abuses committed elsewhere, plaintiff "Juan Doe" alleges that Mahony and Rivera ignored claims of sexual abuse against Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera for more than 20 years.

The cardinals shuffled Aguilar between parishes in Mexico and Southern California while allegations piled up that he had abused dozens of boys, the suit says.

From The Times:

The Mexican-born Aguilar first came to the attention of police in late 1986, after he was beaten by several attackers. Authorities speculated that the attack was in retaliation for his alleged abuse of young boys during overnight stays at the rectory in the Diocese of Tehuacan, Mexico. A month later, then-Bishop Rivera wrote to Mahony to offer Aguilar for placement in a Los Angeles ministry, with a coded reference to the priest being problematic, the lawsuit alleges.

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was enacted in 1789. Legal experts have cast doubt on the viability of the suit, but the plaintiff's attorney says international law should cover sexual abuse in such claims. Reporter Carol J. Williams offers more details, with video, in this post.

The whereabouts of Aguilar, now defrocked, are unknown. Rivera on Thursday dismissed the suit as the work of "opportunists." Tod M. Tamberg, Mahony's spokesman in L.A., called the allegations "preposterous and without foundation."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City. Credit: El Universal


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