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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Social Media

'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped

 Tuiteros1

Two people jailed in Mexico's Veracruz state and charged with terrorism because of a series of alarmist tweets were freed Wednesday. Authorities dropped the charges, and the pair walked out of prison to cheering supporters.

"Thank God that freedom of expression won," Maria de Jesus Bravo, a local journalist and radio commentator, said to the crowd (link in Spanish). She and Gilberto Martinez Vera, a math teacher, spent nearly four weeks in jail after they sent out Twitter messages about a supposed attack on a primary school by drug gangs. 

Authorities contended their messages sowed panic among frantic parents. The pair was arrested and charged with terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carried a penalty of up to 30 years in jail.

The case outraged human rights and free-speech advocates and cast a spotlight on Mexicans' increasing reliance on social media networks for information about violence in their hometowns -- and its potential for abuse. With traditional journalists and other sources of information often silenced by intimidation or bribes, microblogging sites sometimes fill the void. But they also often spread false rumor.

The lawyer for Martinez and Bravo, Fidel Ordonez, confirmed the decision of state authorities to drop all charges.

"We hope that this case serves as a watershed in opening the debate, in political, social and academic circles, over the reach of the right to free expression in current times, and with the technological tools that modernity offers," the lawyer said in a statement provided to La Plaza.

The case became something of an embarrassment for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte. On Tuesday, he pushed through a new law that would allow prosecution of rumormongers on the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. This seemed to open the door to releasing Bravo and Martinez.

Early Wednesday, Duarte, dealing with a new crisis of 35 slain men and women dumped in Veracruz city, announced that the charges against the two tweeters would be dropped. Although there was the chance that they might face prosecution under the new law, Veracruz Interior Secretary Gerardo Buganza said that would not be the case.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Maria de Jesus Bravo and Gilberto Martinez walk to freedom. Credit: EFE.

 

 

 

Freedom likely for Mexico's 'Twitter Terrorists'

Leytuiteros

Freedom appears likely for the two people jailed in Mexico's Veracruz state and accused of terrorism for Twitter messages they sent that allegedly sowed panic. The case has thrown a spotlight on Mexicans' increasing reliance on social media networks for information about violence in their hometowns _ and its potential for abuse.

Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) were arrested last month after using the micro-blogging site to spread rumors of an attack by drug gangs on a local primary school. They were charged with terrorism and sabotage, crimes that carry penalties of up to 30 years in jail. Human rights and social media advocates were outraged, saying the punishment hardly fit the offense.

The case snowballed into something of an embarrassment for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte. On Tuesday, he pushed through a new law that would allow prosecution of rumor-mongers on the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. Many analysts saw this as a face-saving attempt by state authorities to make the case go away.

On Wednesday, Duarte (speaking by, what else? Twitter) said the charges against Martinez, a math teacher, and Bravo, a radio commentator, would be dropped (link in Spanish). Their lawyer, Fidel Ordonez, said he expected the pair to be free by the end of the day.

Duarte may have found it especially urgent to dispose of the case given the mounting violence in Veracruz. The irony of jailing people for Twitter use while gunmen brazenly dump bodies in the middle of the city was captured in this cartoon, which shows the governor holding a tweeting bird in a cage while the streets fill with skulls and blood.

-- Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City.

Photo: Protesters demand freedom for the jailed tweeters at Tuesday's session of the Veracruz state congress. Credit: El Universal

 

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

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.

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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

Terrorism charges for 2 in Mexico who spread attack rumor on Twitter, Facebook

Twitter users jailed veracruz The government of Veracruz state in Mexico has jailed a man and woman on charges of terrorism and sabotage after they published rumors of an unconfirmed narco attack on a school on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook (link in Spanish).

The arrests are sparking outcry from human rights groups and puzzling analysts over the question of whether Mexico is equipped to handle freedom-of-speech cases as they relate to the spiraling violence of the country's drug war.

Twitter and Facebook have become indispensable sources of news on attacks in communities where local news outlets are under the thumb of drug lords or no longer report on violent incidents. At the same time, attacks against or near schools have been reported since the start of the new school year last week, sometimes causing confusion or panic among parents.

In Veracruz, active Twitter user Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) tweeted last Thursday about a supposed attack at a primary school in the municipality of Boca del Rio, next to the city of Veracruz. Martinez Vera's original tweet on the attack said: "They took 5 kids, armed group, total psychosis in the zone." He cited a sister-in-law but later said he had misidentified the school, and then mentioned another, all of which added to the confusion.

Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) reportedly made similar statements on her Facebook account, leading to reports of panicked parents rushing to the school mentioned in their messages. Her Twitter shows inactivity since Aug. 22.

The attack account could not be confirmed by authorities. The following day, Martinez, a teacher, and Bravo, a journalist and former state bureaucrat, were arrested in their homes.

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Who is responsible for the casino tragedy in Mexico?

Monterrey protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The week in Latin America: Unrest continues in Chile

Chile national strike

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

1 dead in Chile national strike

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

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

Casino attack leaves Mexico in mourning

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

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

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

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

The week in Latin America: Start-ups grow in Cuba

Cuba businesses customers ap

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

Small businesses in Cuba

Reporting from Havana, correspondent Tracy Wilkinson examines a boom in family start-up businesses in Cuba, where President Raul Castro is slowly implementing economic reforms intent on introducing basic free-market capitalism to the Communist nation -- and that includes slashing 1 million people off the government payroll.

"Change, of course, comes in fits and starts," Wilkinson writes. "Most Cubans probably have yet to feel much in the way of new prosperity, and many among the emerging crop of fledgling entrepreneurs continue to complain of burdensome red tape and the taxes they are required to pay."

One of the novelties of a new market-friendly Cuba? Car washes.

Ex-wife presidential candidacy deflated

Guatemala's constitutional court ruled this week that the former first lady is ineligible as a candidate for the Sept. 11 presidential election, a political defeat for current President Alvaro Colom, report Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood. Sandra Torres, the former first lady, divorced Colom last spring in order to get around a rule that bars close relatives of leaders from running for the high office.

Colom's coalition is now left without an apparent candidate for an election that is only a month away. That paves a smoother first-round showing for former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who was a strong front-runner in the race even before Torres was disqualified. Perez was an officer during Guatemala's long U.S.-backed war against leftist rebels.

"Torres' coalition already had begun to abandon her," our story says. "Candidates for lower offices have distanced themselves and party activists have torn down her campaign signs."

A look at the numbers of Mexicans abroad

Did you know that 7,245 Mexicans live in France? That 4,572 Mexicans live in Italy? That 6,688 live in the United Kingdom? And 73 live in Luxembourg? (Luxembourg?) Mexico, in fact, is the biggest source of human emigration in the world, with more than 11.5 million of its citizens living outside the country, according to the World Bank.

Many live in cities that saw significant demonstrations against Mexico's drug war on May 8, a day in which Mexican nationals worldwide stepped up to protest violence that has left about 40,000 dead. Take a look at my latest La Plaza post, which follows an earlier post examining the phenomenon of internal migration in Mexico.

Daniel Hernandez

Photo: A woman waits for customers at a pizzeria in Havana. Credit: Javier Galeano / Associated Press

Demonstrations on Mexico drug war offered look at Mexicans abroad

Montreal demonstration may 8 no mas sangre facebook

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

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

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

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

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Recent News
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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