La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Science

The week in Latin America: Allende suicide confirmed

Allende archive suicide

Here are stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:


Salvador Allende's death confirmed as suicide

Nearly four decades after the violent military coup in Chile, results of a judge-ordered autopsy on the remains of ousted President Salvador Allende confirmed that he killed himself and was not slain by soldiers attacking La Moneda, the presidential palace, on Sept. 11, 1973.

The inquest results, which were received with "great peace" by Allende's survivors, put to rest a significant historical mystery of the 20th century and a lingering wound on the Chilean national psyche. Allende was the first democratically elected socialist in Latin America, but his presidency was cut short by the coup that brought to power the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship in Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, shortly after the coup, is also being investigated in Chile, as well as hundreds of other deaths presumed to be tied to the dictatorship.


Another high-profile corruption case fails in Mexico

An operation targeting officials in Michoacan collapses. Jorge Hank Rhon walks free in Tijuana. Now, the ex-mayor of Cancun is the latest high-profile corruption suspect to be released in Mexico after authorities failed to build a solid case against him, reports The Times.

Gregorio Sanchez, arrested in May, 2010, walked free on Wednesday, but was ordered to wear a tracking bracelet while prosecutors attempt to build another set of charges. Sanchez was campaigning for governor of the state of Quintana Roo at the time of his arrest on suspicion of cartel ties. Supporters claim he was targeted for political reasons, an allegation also raised against the similar failed cases in Tijuana and Michoacan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced in Washington this week a "surgical strike" against La Familia cartel operations north of the border, with 1,985 arrests. The 20-month investigation "stripped La Familia of its manpower" in the U.S., authorities said. La Familia is based in Michoacan.


Buenos Aires mayoral election heading to runoff

The capital of Argentina looks to remain a center-right counterweight against the leftist-populist government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner after mayoral election results in Buenos Aires.

A runoff is scheduled for July 31 between conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri, who won 47% of the vote on July 10, and leftist Fernandez ally Daniel Filmus, who won about 28%. The election results left one rock-pop singer in "disgust," a comment that exposed deep social and class rifts in Buenos Aires.

Fernandez seeks to be re-elected in October.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An archive image shows the body of Chilean President Salvador Allende being removed from the presidential palace in Santiago on Sept. 11, 1973. Credit:

Cyberattacks strike networks in Brazil, revealing vulnerability across Latin America

Dilma rousseff brasil president Latin America's vulnerability to cyberattacks was laid bare in recent weeks as government networks in several countries were hacked or temporarily shut down, and hackers threatened to go after more.

On June 21, the hackers group LulzSec claimed on Twitter that it had shut down Brazil's federal government portal and the website of President Dilma Rousseff. Both sites were still not loading properly until Wednesday, demonstrating that Brazil was unable to secure the public online face of its government for more than a week.

Websites for Brazil's tax collection agency, statistics agency, army, and state oil company Petrobras were also targeted, reports said (link in Spanish), although Petrobras sought to deny the breach. The attacks have been primarily "denial of service" swarms in which a site is overloaded with users and thus shut down.

Yet reports said hackers have also accessed sensitive information, such as Brazilian military personnel's private data. Brazil's federal IT agency Serpo said in a statement that, in all, 25 attacks were carried out against government sites between June 22 and 26 (link in Portuguese).

According to a Foreign Policy Digest report in February, governments across Latin America remain deeply vulnerable to cyberwarfare, with Brazil, with its large economy and population, said to be particularly at risk.

Worldwide hacker groups such as Anonymous now appear to have cells in various Latin American countries and have carried out or threatened cyberattacks on government sites, usually announcing their plans via Twitter and YouTube. Two weeks ago, hackers shut down the Colombian Senate's website for a day (link in Spanish). On Tuesday, Anonymous shut down the website of Argentina's Senate in protest of a proposed tax on digital consumer products. The site was still not loading properly as of Thursday morning.

Attacks were also threatened on government or industry sites in Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico, although these did not appear to be carried out. Anonymous had said it would strike Peru and Chile an an operation called "Andes Libre" for what it said was those governments' monitoring of social networking activity, while Anonymous said it would go after Venezuela and Nicaragua for those leftist governments' support of Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

LulzSec appears to have had a short lifespan, calling it quits after 50 days of activity, reports The Times.

Twitter accounts tied to supposed Anonymous cells in Latin America, however, remain active, with a threatened attack looming Thursday against a government-private development project in Mexico called Iniciativa Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. Credit: Europa Press

In Mexico, a drought has thrown the reliable rainy season out of whack

Rain clouds downtown mexico city daniel hernandez

On Tuesday evening, this metropolis got some weather that was remarkable for all the wrong reasons.

Clouds gathered up and darkened by late afternoon, and by dusk, cold droplets ended their long journey from the sky on the city's endless fields of parched concrete. Mexico City had been asking for it, and it finally rained. 

Rain in June in Mexico, of course, is not a newsworthy event. The rainy season is usually well under way by now. But this year, due to a national drought, the rainy season is more than five weeks late and counting. A subdued anxiety has taken hold among some residents.

Could it be? we asked. Have the rains finally started?

The answer is a bit of "yes" and also a bit of some troubling "no." Tuesday's storm was deceptive. Chilly and soft, the rain was in fact residual moisture from Hurricane Beatriz, which hit the country's southern Pacific coast over the weekend and eventually made it up to high central Mexico as a weakened tropical depression. 

It was not "normal rain" for this time of year: subtropical downpours that are sudden and brief, hitting like clockwork nearly every afternoon between mid-May and late-October. Except for a freak hailstorm in April, the 2011 rainy season has so far been decidedly un-rainy (link in Spanish). Forecasts each morning have almost become a mocking thing, showing potential rainfall in the afternoon that never materializes, day after day.

Mexico is currently facing a drought that has affected nearly every region of the country, reports the National Meteorological Service. After last year's unusually wet and deadly rainy season, there has been little rainfall since October. According to Martin Ibarra, head of the weather service's long-term forecast office, the drought started in the northeast of the country and spread downward for months, sparking substantial forest fires in Coahuila state and record temperatures everywhere else.

"There are years that the country will be wetter than usual, like last year, and years that will be drier than usual," Ibarra said in an interview. "This is a rain deficit."

Continue reading »

Chile volcano keeps spewing ash, grounding flights across South America

Chile volcano ap june 12

The Puyehue volcano on the border between Chile and Argentina continued to spew ash over the Andes and Patagonia regions of South America on Tuesday. The eruption is now entering its 11th day and shows no sign of stopping.

Flights were grounded from Argentina to Australia and New Zealand as ash clouds that could harm jet engines blanketed the region and moved west across the South Pacific. Flights were also being canceled in Santiago, Chile's capital (link in Spanish), as well as in Brazil and Uruguay.

The Associated Press said "booming explosives echoed across the Andes" on Monday as ash and lightning rose from the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex, which is in southern Chile just west of the border with Argentina. Activity at the volcano began on June 4. Thousands of nearby residents have been evacuated.

Concerns rose this week that the eruption could harm the region's tourism industry as the high winter ski season approaches, reports said. Here's a fresh video report (in Spanish) on the eruption from the Argentine news source Clarin.

See more photos of the ongoing eruption at our sister blog Framework.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The Puyehue volcano emits ash and lightning on Sunday. Credit: Associated Press

Researcher projects 5,000 will die in Ciudad Juarez in 2011

Funeral procession ciudad juarez 2010 youth slain

An artificial-intelligence model generated by a university researcher in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, projects that 5,000 people will be killed in the violent border city this year. The same model projected at the start of 2010 that 3,000 would be killed in the greater Juarez area, a figure that eventually reached 3,111 -- about a 94% accuracy rate.

It may seem far-fetched to make such long-term projections on a fluid criminal conflict such as the drug war in Juarez. Researcher Alberto Ochoa, in an interview with La Plaza on Monday, said his model is based on methods that mimic biology-based, or "bioinspired," patterns. Barring a "radical change" in Ciudad Juarez -- where the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels are battling over the drug-trafficking route across the U.S. border into El Paso, Texas -- his projection foresees a figure of roughly 5,000 dead.

"This technique is nothing new," Ochoa said from the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, where he is a researcher at the Center for Social Investigations. "It's not the most accurate model but it is based heavily on reality."

"It's not Excel," the researcher added, referring to the commonly used software program. "The model has to be fed, values have to be adjusted. It's complicated."

By differing measures, Juarez ranks as the most violent city in Mexico, most violent in the Western Hemisphere, or even the most violent in the world, the local newspaper El Diario reported earlier this month (link in Spanish). Juarez, with a current population of 1.3 million, has lost more than 230,000 residents in an "exodus" from the daily barrage of drug-related killings, kidnappings and extortion operations.

"And no one does nothing," Ochoa said. "It's going to get worse."

The 3,111 figure of deaths in Juarez in 2010 is used among local news outlets, citing figures from the Juarez morgue, and includes homicides in the greater Juarez area. Within Juarez city limits, the federal government's recently released homicide database says 2,738 people died there in 2010.

On Sunday in Juarez, gunmen opened fire on a group of young people playing soccer at a new government-built field, killing seven, authorities said (links in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A funeral procession for some of the victims of a January 2010 attack that left 15 young people dead in Ciudad Juarez. Credit: Jesus Alcazar / European Pressphoto Agency

Brooklyn Museum seeks to return pre-Hispanic artifacts to Costa Rica

Bowl costa rica brooklyn museum

More than a century ago, an American railroad and fruit magnate named Minor C. Keith unearthed thousands of pre-Hispanic artifacts on a plantation in Costa Rica, then took them to the United States. They were gold and jade pieces, ceramic bowls and anthropomorphic figurines. In 1934, five years after Keith died, the Brooklyn Museum in New York acquired about 5,000 pieces from his collection. Those objects then languished in storage for more than seven decades.

Now, the Brooklyn Museum wants to send the Keith objects back to Costa Rica, but the Central American nation has to come up with the money to pay to move them.

The potential exchange is not characterized by the political and philosophical debates that have pitted Western museums and universities against governments in countries from which archaeologically valuable items have been taken. For example, Peru and Yale University fought for years over artifacts dug up at the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu until a deal on those items was reached in November.

In this case, Costa Rica had made no claims on the Keith objects but responded positively to outreach made by the Brooklyn Museum, stemming from the museum's efforts to minimize and streamline its holdings.

The Brooklyn Museum has told the National Museum of Costa Rica that it would like to return about 4,500 pre-Hispanic artifacts but would like to keep some pieces that are considered more valuable. In Costa Rica, officials said they were open to receiving any artifacts but have no budget to pay for the shipping costs, estimated at $59,000.

Continue reading »

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

Paraguay halts British expedition over isolated indigenous group

Ayoreo man chaco survival

The government of Paraguay has put the brakes on a planned expedition into a remote northern region of the country, fearing that researchers from the Natural History Museum of London could make contact with an indigenous group that wants to remain isolated from the outside world.

The museum had hoped to study the plant and animal life in Paraguay's Chaco, a dry forest region where the native Ayoreo people live in voluntary isolation. Local conservationists and indigenous rights groups warned the government that the Ayoreo's isolation could be compromised by the expedition, despite the planned use of a contacted Ayoreo guide who would have explored ahead to warn residents of approaching outsiders, reports Nature.

The Chaco region, which stretches from the north of Argentina to Brazil, is under threat from ranchers and loggers. The Ayoreo are considered the last uncontacted indigenous group in South America outside the Amazon basin. There are no precise figures on their population.

Continue reading »

World mayors sign climate-change pact in Mexico City

Mexico City mayors climate change summit

Hoping to place cities at the forefront of global climate-change policy efforts, leaders of more than 100 urban centers pledged on Sunday in Mexico City to commit their governments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called Mexico City Pact is a precursor to climate-change talks with world governments opening next week in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. Countries will attempt once more to come up with a binding treaty to rein in global warming after the failure to do so at United Nations talks in Denmark last year.

In Mexico City, mayors and representatives of 138 cities, including Los Angeles, Paris and Johannesburg, signed the voluntary pact that states they will develop and implement local climate-change action plans that are "measurable, reportable and verifiable." The mayors summit was organized by the government of Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, whose efforts to "green" this crowded and polluted megalopolis are considered the most ambitious in Latin America.

Ebrard, who appears a likely presidential candidate in Mexico in 2012, said local governments will be key to reducing the effects of climate change. A majority of the world's population is now living in cities for the first time in history.

"We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won," the mayor said before the summit.

Other cities in the region joining the pledge in Mexico City included Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina; La Paz, capital of Bolivia; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the largest cities in Brazil; Bogota,  capital of Colombia; Quito, capital of Ecuador; and Montevideo, Uruguay's capital (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, center, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, at left, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hold the pact. Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, who also presented his plan on climate change at the mayors summit, is seen in the far rear, third from left (link in Spanish). Credit: World Mayors Summit on Climate Change

A 'miracle' in Chile, but mining accidents are often tragedies across Latin America

 Esteban rojas chile mine rescue reuters

If the remarkable rescue of 33 miners trapped in Chile for 69 days was a "miracle," as some have dubbed it, other mining accidents in recent years have had less happy endings, claiming dozens of lives in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

Though mining accidents are relatively rare in Chile, a 2007 collapse in the same San Jose mine where "Los 33" were trapped left a miner dead and forced the mine's temporary closure. At another mine in the Copiaco region, a truck collision in 2006 left two miners dead and 70 others trapped for several hours (link in Spanish).

As metal prices rise and companies continue to seek Latin America's rich deposits of minerals and coal, the industry grows faster than some countries can regulate it, says a Forbes report. There are regular conflicts with workers over pay and safety conditions, as well as numerous reports of illegal mining operations -- with hardly any safety oversight or regulations -- in so-called wildcat mines.

Here are some major recent mining accidents in Latin America:

* This month, five miners died in a collapse at a coal mine in northeast Colombia (link in Spanish).

* In August, while the 33 Chile miners were trapped underground, an explosion at a wildcat gold mine in a remote jungle in Venezuela killed six miners. Miners in the area said that the actual toll was 14 or 15.

* In June, an explosion at a coal mine in northwestern Colombia left 70 miners dead, one of the largest death tolls recorded in recent mining accidents worldwide.

* In February, eight miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Peru.

* In 2006, 65 miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Mexico (link in Spanish).

President Sebastian Pinera has vowed to overhaul safety regulations at mines in Chile, the world's top copper producer. Pinera announced the formation of a new commission to examine workplace safety in mines and fired the previous mining minister early in the rescue effort. But safety and regulatory issues remain a major challenge for the industry across the region.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Esteban Rojas kneels and hugs his wife after being the 18th miner rescued from the San Jose mine in Chile. Credit: Reuters


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