La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Television

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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Messy Mexican election reemerges in leaked cables

Congress mexico 2006 election calderon amlo reuters

The controversial 2006 presidential election that brought Felipe Calderon to power in Mexico reemerged in the secret U.S. diplomatic cables released this week, sparking a fresh controversy on Friday involving -- of all other world leaders -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, dated October 2009, President Calderon is described as telling the former U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, that he believed Chavez had "funded" his top opponent and nemesis in the race three years earlier, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Calderon ran with the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, while Lopez Obrador ran with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The campaign was characterized by many at the time as the first "U.S.-style" race, with unprecedented levels of television spots. Some Calderon television ads in 2006 directly compared Lopez Obrador to Chavez, calling the leftist a "danger to Mexico."

From the cable:

Calderon emphasized that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is active everywhere, including Mexico. He went out of his way to highlight that he believes Chavez funded the PRD opposition during the Presidential campaign nearly four years ago. Chavez uses social programs, including sending doctors, to curry political influence, and there are governors in Mexico who may be friendly to him. Calderon said that Mexico is trying to isolate Venezuela through the Rio Group. Calderon also commented that he is particularly concerned about Venezuela's relations with Iran, and that the Iranian Embassy in Mexico is very active. Calderon underscored that Iran's growing influence in Latin American should be of considerable concern to the United States, and Chavez is doing all he can to aid and abet it.

Iran maintains an embassy in Mexico City, and its presence in Latin America is a point of concern for the United States, other leaked U.S. documents show, but other claims attributed to Calderon in the October 2009 cable were not immediately verifiable.

Calderon eventually won the 2006 race by less than 1% after a partial recount, a result which Lopez Obrador and his most ardent supporters refuse to recognize to this day. Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki later released a documentary film called "Fraude" on the 2006 race and the social movement that followed that sought to declare Lopez Obrador the "legitimate president."

Violent scuffles, as seen above, gripped the Mexican lower house of Congress in the days leading up to Calderon's swearing in, as some legislators attempted to physically block his ascendance to office. Days after assuming the presidency, Calderon dispatched the Mexican military to confront the country's drug cartels.

Late Thursday, via Twitter, Lopez Obrador demanded that Calderon prove Venezuela's Chavez financially supported his 2006 campaign (link in Spanish). The president's office has not responded.

In other portions of the leaked cable, Calderon requested that the U.S. create a more "visible presence" in Latin America overall.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Conservative PAN and leftist PRD legislators scuffle over control of the podium in the Chamber of Deputies in the aftermath of the disputed 2006 election, Nov. 28, 2006, in Mexico City. Credit: Tomas Bravo / Reuters

Unrest grips Ecuador, threatening President Rafael Correa


In a violent day of chaos, Ecuadoran security forces protesting cuts in their benefits took to the streets and are threatening the government of President Rafael Correa.

The government declared a state of emergency after Correa was confronted by angry police officers.  He  shouted defiantly from a window to demonstrators: "If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill him, if you want to! Kill him if you are brave enough!" When Correa attempted to leave the site, tear gas was fired and the president was seen in televised video struggling through a large outdoor scuffle.

On Twitter, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said, "They are trying to topple President Correa. Be on alert people of the Bolivarian Alliance!" Readers can follow live Twitter updates on the unrest at #Ecuador.

Members of the armed forces took over and shut down the airport in Quito, the capital, and clashes were reported in several cities between security forces and civilian Correa supporters. Several news organizations are also reporting that their reporters have been attacked and their equipment damaged.

Ecuador's government has launched an emergency news site tracking the unrest and response in the international community. As of this afternoon, Correa is reportedly in a police hospital, but it is unclear whether he is holed up there or being held against his will. The Los Angeles Times will have more updates soon.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa is carried away after being overcome by tear gas. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The 1985 Mexico City earthquake, remembered

Us geological survey historical photo mexico city quake 1985

Mexico City on Sunday marked 25 years since a powerful earthquake devastated the Mexican capital, killing thousands and sparking a grassroots civilian rescue effort that helped lead to the demise of the one-party state.

The magnitude 8.1 quake shook Mexico City at 7:19 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1985, lasting between three and five minutes. It toppled hundreds of buildings across the densely settled former lake bed, including several hospitals. An estimated 10,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands were injured or left homeless.  Many children were orphaned.

Here's a YouTube clip of live Televisa newscast footage as the quake hits, where the anchor attempts to remain calm, telling viewers, "It's shaking just a teensy bit. Don't be scared."

The quake, which struck on Mexico's Pacific coast, exposed a crippling ineptitude in the response of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The government seemed unprepared and unable to organize itself to respond to the quake, so ordinary people did it themselves.

Regis hotel mexico city earthquake 1985 afp

There were prominent victims, such as famed rocker Rodrigo "Rockdrigo" Gonzalez, and miraculous rescues, such as the three "miracle babies" who were pulled alive from the crumbled Juarez Hospital a full seven days after the quake (link in Spanish).

The quake also exposed the endemic corruption that had come to define the PRI state. Bribery and lax oversight allowed buildings to be erected without proper earthquake safety measures. In another manner, the earthquake jolted the press in Mexico. Without a state apparatus functioning properly in the aftermath, journalists were left to fill the role of transmitting vital information as well as the growing grievances of the survivors, as this YouTube video clip demonstrates (in Spanish)

Mexico City then experienced an exodus. Many middle- and upper-class families, seeing the city almost destroyed and unable to function, relocated to provincial cities and towns or to the United States.

Three years later, a rumbling electoral revolt suggested the PRI would finally lose power, partly because of  outrage over the earthquake response. But another PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, aided by almost certain vote fraud, won over leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas when "the system went silent," or, as most Mexicans remember it, when "the system crashed" (link in Spanish). The PRI was finally booted from power in 2000.

Mexico quake memorial 1985 ap

On Sunday, President Felipe Calderon oversaw a solemn flag ceremony on the Zocalo plaza, and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard dedicated a 25th anniversary plaque for the quake's victims at Solidarity Plaza, a small square near the Alameda Central where the Regis Hotel once stood. The famous hotel was destroyed in the earthquake.

Many of the civil rescue and neighborhood survival groups formed after the quake are still active today. One squad, Los Topos, participated in the rescue effort after Haiti's earthquake early this year (link in Spanish). Today, the city held its annual earthquake-preparedness drill, timed each year for the quake's anniversary (link in Spanish).

El Universal has an interactive multimedia gallery of quake images, audio and graphics. And here's a photo archive by the U.S. Geological Survey.

For readers interested in learning more about the 1985 earthquake, check out the books "No sin nosotros," by Carlos Monsivais; "Nada, Nadie. Las Voces del Temblor," by Elena Poniatowska; and more recently in English, the earthquake-related sections of "El Monstruo" by John Ross.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Top, a collapsed building in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey / Center: The collapsed Regis Hotel in downtown Mexico City. Credit: Agence France-Presse file / Bottom: Hard hats and candles at a memorial plaque for victims of the 1985 earthquake. Credit: Associated Press

Photos: Five days to go for Mexico's bicentennial

Zocalo bicentenario clock

Above, the countdown to Mexico's independence bicentennial, showing just five days to go Friday afternoon near the Zocalo square in downtown Mexico City. It's almost hard to believe. The bicentennial clock was inaugurated at 11 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2008, when it began counting down 730 days to Sept. 16, 2010 (link in Spanish). We're almost there.

You can finally feel it, a quiet, rumbling sense of anticipation for the fiestas patrias on the streets of Mexico City. Flags are appearing in shop windows and attached to the backs of microbuses and taxis. Enormous tricolor banners -- red, white, and green -- are being flung over the tops of government buildings. There are "bicentenario specials" in stores and restaurants, and more than enough bicentennial-related imagery  and ties in government public messages and advertising on television and radio.

Workers banners building

In the city center and along the stately Paseo de la Reforma, workers are busily erecting stages and lighting arrays for concerts and performances planned for the night of Sept. 15. Mexico is celebrating 200 years of independence from Spain and 100 years since the start of the revolution.

Well, almost all of Mexico, that is. At least 16 municipalities have canceled their grito events due to the threat of drug-related violence. Other cities affected by recent heavy rains also might have to cancel their events.

In Guerrero state, five municipalities won't have a party on the night of Sept. 15, but not because of violence or rain. Local officials just can't get organized and set aside political differences, El Universal reports (link in Spanish).

Zocalo bicentenario preparation crane

In Mexico City, an estimated 430,000 national and foreign tourists are expected to arrive in the coming days for the party. La Jornada has a list of the stars who are scheduled to perform for the crowds, among them the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, pop stars Paulina Rubio and Ely Guerra, and Aleks Syntek, the artist responsible for that regrettable "official" bicentennial song that was later retracted after almost uniform criticism.

There will be three stages and 45 giant screens along the Reforma corridor into the Centro. A parade will  begin at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on national TV networks, an event "without precedent in the history of the country," said Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio, whose ministry is organizing the festivities.

Bicentenario hats

The city didn't look or feel like this even a week ago. For months there has been a sense of ambivalence, even wariness, about the holiday. Mexico is facing the most serious challenge to its stability, the drug war, since the last time a major social upheaval engulfed the country. That was the revolution, a century ago. The current battle against drug-trafficking groups is simply not working.

Everyday the violence numbs. On Thursday, 25 more people were killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city just across the border from the United States that has become synonymous with bloodshed and death. According to Molly Molloy, a researcher and librarian who tracks the violence in Ciudad Juarez, that brings the total of deaths there this year to 2,122, or about eight per day as of Friday morning. In all, 6,499 people have been killed in Ciudad Juarez since January 2008, Molloy calculates.

Juarez is among those cities that will not be holding a bicentennial celebration next week.

Bicententario centro santo domingo

The federal government is getting ready for a big party nonetheless. Mexico, despite its many problems, is a country that eternally loves a party, a society whose whole social structure, you might say, is rooted around the fiesta. The mood extends north of the border. Bicentennial events are also being planned in major cities in the United States and all through its Mexican-American Southwest, from California to Texas.

On Friday, the White House announced that it will send an official delegation to the celebration in the Mexican capital. The delegation is headed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the former congresswoman from Los Angeles; U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, who already lives in town; Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; and Julian Castro, the up-and-coming mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

Other performers invited to the stages along Reforma include the alternative bands Zoe, Kinky, and Maldita Vecindad, singer Lila Downs, and the norteño crooner Espinoza Paz. Fun if you're celebrating in the state-sponsored or VIP areas, but not if you're a resident dealing with the traffic.

Bicentenario stages traffic

With large sections of the downtown and Reforma areas already closed to vehicular traffic, it's going to be a long five days until Wednesday. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, Reforma will be entirely closed all the way to streets leading into the Zocalo. But the metro and Metrobus systems will be running after midnight and until 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, the government said.

La Plaza will be here to keep an eye on how it goes down. After all, a bicentennial, in any country, happens only once.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo credits: Daniel Hernandez

'Presumed Guilty' sheds light on failures of Mexico's justice system

Presumed guilty abogados con camaras

In late 2005, a young street vendor in the crowded Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City was picked up by police, hauled to jail, and told: "You did it."

Just like that, Antonio Zuniga was accused of the murder of a man he had never met. No physical evidence implicated him in the death, and multiple witnesses saw him elsewhere at the time of the killing. Yet, in Mexico's Kafkaesque criminal justice system -- where police are pressured to slap charges on anyone in order to secure convictions -- Zuniga was presumed guilty from the start.

There are no jury trials in Mexico, so a judge found the 26-year-old rapper and break dancer guilty and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Just like that, his life screeched to a halt.

Zuniga might still be wrongly incarcerated were it not for the efforts of a lawyer couple carrying video cameras, Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete. Struck by luck time and again, they found a tiny procedural error that allowed Zuniga to get a retrial. The presiding judge allowed the two to record the proceedings. The result is the 2009 documentary "Presumed Guilty," a stirring and often shocking examination of the built-in failures in Mexican justice.

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A Chamorro wins journalism prize -- again

Cfch2 Thirty-three years after his father was awarded the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot journalism prize, Carlos Fernando Chamorro has received the same honor. The veteran Nicaraguan journalist said he was "overwhelmed and humbled" and inspired to redouble efforts to honor his father's memory.

The parallels were lost on no one. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the father, was the editor of La Prensa in the 1970s who challenged dictator Anastasio Somoza. Pedro Joaquin won the Cabot Prize in 1977; months later, he was assassinated by Somoza loyalists, an event that helped galvanize opposition and trigger the revolution that brought the Sandinista Liberation Front to power two years later.

Today, Carlos Fernando, the son, is one of the most vocal critics of the Sandinista government under President Daniel Ortega, whom enemies see as a Somoza-like dictator.

The Cabot Prize is administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which said in its citation that Chamorro "serves as an outstanding example of courage in standing up to abuse by an authoritarian regime."

Chamorro, one of four 2010 Cabot Prize recipients, directs a nightly television program, Esta Noche, and a newsletter, Confidencial.

Reading a statement on the program (link in Spanish), Chamorro said the prize would serve to "call attention to the vigor of independent journalism in Nicaragua, which, despite all the intimidation campaigns, has maintained its credibility intact."

As The Times reported last year, Chamorro has been subjected to government raids on his offices and protracted but ultimately unsuccessful attempts by Ortega to prosecute him. Nicaragua is often listed by rights groups as a country where the government seriously harasses journalists.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Carlos Fernando Chamorro. Credit: Confidencial.


Colombian journalist denied visa for Harvard fellowship

A prominent and controversial Colombian journalist has been denied a visa to enter the U.S. to participate in a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University. The U.S. Embassy ruled journalist Hollman Morris ineligible to enter the United States under the "Terrorist Activities" section of the USA Patriot Act, reports the Associated Press.

Morris is known for his reports on human rights abuses by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, at the independent news outlet Contravia, but has been accused of allegiance to the FARC guerrilla group by Colombia's president. Morris had been awarded the Nieman Fellowship, a mid-career program at Harvard for experienced reporters from around the world, for his work investigating little-known abuses at the hands of far-right armed groups who fight the FARC in Colombia's isolated rural regions.

Reports in Colombia have tied paramilitaries to relatives of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, coining a new term for such relationships, "parapolitics." Far-right paramilitary groups in Colombia are believed to be responsible for as many as 20,000 deaths or disappearances, according to some reports.

Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, has singled out Morris for criticism, the AP says: "On Feb. 3, 2009, Uribe called Morris 'an accomplice of terrorism' posing as a journalist after Morris showed up with FARC rebels to cover the insurgents' liberation of four Colombian security force members."

In the video embedded above, via the Center for Investigative Reporting, Morris and his brother Juan Pablo Morris explain their efforts.

"We believe the country needs to know this story," Hollman Morris says in the video. "These documents, these archives, these programs will be the story that nourishes the next generation of Colombians. My children must know this. My children's children. If we want and believe that we shouldn't repeat that tragic history in our country."

The Nieman Fellowship is hoping that the U.S. State Department reverses its decision on Morris' visa. From the Nieman Lab blog:

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

The news site Colombia Reports has more on documents that discuss government surveillance on Morris.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Center for Investigative Reporting

In Mexico, Times report on network's use of blackface renews racism debate

Screen grab primero el mundial black face racism mexico televisa
The Mexican media conglomerate Televisa employs actors in blackface during a popular morning program on the World Cup, underscoring once more the conflicting attitudes held by Mexico and the United States about race and racism. Tracy Wilkinson writes in The Times:

But this is Mexico, and definitions of racism are complicated and influenced by the country's own tortured relationship with invading powers and indigenous cultures.

Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.

As proof, they point to the fact that slavery was ended in Mexico decades before it was abolished in the United States, and that Mexico never institutionalized racism the way the U.S. did with its segregationist laws that lasted into the 1960s.

Mexicans, it turns out, just don't see caricatures of Africans or black people as inherently racist, bringing to mind the flap in 2005 over a historic comic book character named Memin Pinguin, beloved by Mexicans but reviled in the U.S. for his exaggerated African features. Wilkinson adds:

Still, in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, people operate with a different comfort level when it comes to physical attributes. It remains common for Mexicans to use nicknames like "Chino" for someone with almond-shaped eyes, "Negrito" for someone with dark skin, "Gordo" (Fatso) for a plump person.

These terms are jarring when seen through the prism of U.S. sensibilities, but here they are usually used in a context of affection and friendship.

In online reader comments to an article in the El Universal newspaper on the Times report, many readers reacted with indignation to the suggestion that the Televisa skits are racist (link in Spanish). "Disgusting double standard for an imperialist and invading country," wrote one El Universal reader. "They should be ashamed criticizing a cartoon."

But another reader commented: "Showing people in black-face as primitive persons is the same as showing Mexicans as delinquents, and of course the latter doesn't strike us as a joke. Both acts are racist, but the difference is one makes us laugh and therefore it's approved."

Author David Lida, in a post on his blog, discussed the image used on a Mexican snack cake called "Negrito" as another instance of Mexico's blithe treatment of racial caricatures:

I've never met a Mexican who copped to being a racist. Some, particularly from the upper echelons, lament that their society is class-based, but argue that since nearly everyone is mestizo -- with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood -- therefore how could they be racist?

Meanwhile, in an article on the Memin Pinguin controversy in the Boston Review, historian Claudio Lomnitz argues that the scandalized American responses to Mexican racial caricatures reflect a recent phenomenon of identity politics and "political correctness" that has no direct equivalent in Mexico or the rest of Latin America. It's a long article but worth reading:

There has been a sea change since the 1980s in the ways that Latin American race relations are understood by American academics and educators. Criticism of race relations and racism in Brazil, Mexico, the Andes, the Caribbean, and Central America has developed as a natural extension of multiculturalism and identity politics in the United States, and many studies describe persistent racial inequalities masked by the idea of racial democracy. This criticism and research has, in turn, fed discussions of race in Latin America, albeit in an attenuated manner: Brazil has had its own proponents of “black power,” and racism against Indians has become a theme in Mexican social movements. Because these challenges are difficult to reconcile with Mexico’s 80-year-old ideology of national integration, they are often downplayed in public debate — as if Mexican racism had long been taken care of, and as if whatever remains of it were somehow less harmful because things are worse in the United States.

So what's your take? Is racism in Mexico alive and well? Or is Mexico, with its long history of racial mixture, just racially liberated? The questions get to the core of one of the most complex aspects of Mexican identity. Mexico's Televisa can't be accused of tiptoeing around them.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

* Image: Screen grab from 'Primero el Mundial' on Televisa. Credit:

World Cup promo shows Mexican TV figures 'on the way to South Africa'

Above, a publicity clip for Mexico's major network coverage of the World Cup in South Africa. The promo by Televisa Sports, a division of Mexico's Televisa media conglomerate, shows well-known actors and newscasters from the network "on the way to South Africa."

They are humming and dancing along to the oldies classic "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," by the Tokens, while snapping photos of animals as if on a safari. Then, while the group is crossing a river, a crocodile nabs sportscaster Enrique Burak, known to generate on-air debate due to a habit of commenting on sports out of his expertise.

The dialogue delivers the punch line:

"What now?"

"Well, he didn't know that much about soccer anyway, right?"

"Ahh, good point."

Guillermo Roman, marketing director for Televisa Sports, said in an interview with La Plaza that the purpose of such promos (here's another) is to draw in viewers who are not regular sports fans to the network's upcoming coverage of Mexico's team at the World Cup. The strategy, Roman explained, is to showcase familiar faces from Televisa in a setting that, according to his marketing surveys, evokes Africa for typical viewers, which would include "that sunset, that wildlife, that look, let's say, of an African safari."

"We're conscious that there is much more complexity" in South Africa, Roman said. "Yes, there is cliché, but this is more about getting a smile from people, creating goodwill, so that after that, they see the depth of our work."

Viewers have responded positively to the promo, Roman said. One woman said in a survey, the marketing director reported, that she identified with Burak because "I don't know anything about soccer either, so let's go to the World Cup!"

"People have made the promos theirs," Roman said. "We're capable of laughing at ourselves."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Televisa Sports, via YouTube.


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Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
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