La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Tracy Wilkinson

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

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

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

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

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Matazetas

The news just gets grimmer in Mexico as the drug war nears the end of its fifth year and claims more and more innocent lives. On Thursday, gunmen burst into a casino in the northern city of Monterrey and set fire to the place, killing more than 50 people, Ken Ellingwood reports in The Times.

The attack was described by the federal government as an act of terror. President Felipe Calderon has ordered three days of national mourning, but no official decree was needed to observe a palpable sense of gloom among ordinary citizens on Friday morning even here in Mexico City, far from Monterrey.

In Mexico's current armed conflict, when a night-life or entertainment establishment is attacked, authorities assume an extortion deal gone wrong. A business owner refuses to pay a hefty "tax" to an organized crime group, or is being extorted by more than one group, a deal frays, and eventually, innocent lives are lost. In other instances, a business might be attacked out of sheer competition between cartels.

In the past year, Monterrey has seen such attacks more than its people probably care to count. In early July, more than 20 people were killed when gunmen assaulted a crowded bar in downtown Monterrey on a Friday night. The hitmen even killed the hot-dog vendor outside.

The violence in Monterrey is presumed to be a result of the localized war between the two major cartels that seek control over Mexico's wealthiest city -- the Gulf cartel and their former armed wing, the Zetas -- which were founded by ex-members of an elite Mexican military unit.

The Zetas in particular are known for their brutal attack techniques, so much so that late last month a new self-described cartel announced its debut with the online video: the Mata Zetas, or "Zeta Killers."

The Spanish-language video link shows a group of men in flack jackets, hooded masks or helmets, and holding high-powered military-grade assault rifles. They stand in silence as a voice-over announces the group's fight against "these filthy Zetas" in the state of Veracruz. The image achieves its goal, striking fear in the observer. The group looks fierce, cold-blooded and trained.

The Mata Zetas identify themselves as a subgroup of the so-called Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. If that's the first time you've heard of that cartel, you're likely not alone. Even journalists these days have trouble keeping track of all the organized-crime groups.

As Mexico's military and federal police seek to arrest or take out top cartel figures, the drug groups inevitably splinter in the subsequent power vacuums, and new self-described "cartels" are formed, although it is practically impossible to know how large or organized the new groups can be. Out of those, subgroups branch out, often seeking to claim new territory or "clean up" against a rival. Since last year, for example, three new cartels have emerged in the battle over the southern port and resort city of Acapulco.

In the western state of Michoacan, a new cartel giving itself the medieval name of Knights Templar has begun terrorizing communities there. That group is said to have splintered off from the fearsome La Familia. As Tracy Wilkinson reported in The Times, the June arrest of the reigning La Familia leader ensures only one thing: "Removing the top capos, which is Calderon's stated strategy, provokes violent power struggles as potential successors compete for their share of the ever-lucrative drug trade."

Yet the U.S. and Mexico governments argue the fight against Mexico's transnational organized crime groups must continue, despite more than 40,000 dead in Mexico alone.

How many more new cartels can form before the conflict runs its course?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Screen-grab of video announcing the formation of the so-called 'Zeta Killers.' Via YouTube

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

The week in Latin America: Don't cross this union boss

Elba esther gordillo ap

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

Poverty grows in Mexico

Mexico's government and political class struggled to come to terms with new figures that showed poverty is steadily on the rise in Mexico, swelling to nearly half the national population. Of those 52 million Mexicans now identified as poor, more than 11 million live in extreme poverty, the independent findings said. "This government like no other has sought to give opportunity to the poor," President Felipe Calderon responded.

Boom times in Argentina?

Argentina's economy, meanwhile, is booming and expected to grow by 8% this year, reports special correspondent Chris Kraul from Buenos Aires. Exports, construction, and auto manufacturing are on a roll. But trouble spots abound, including a rising inflation rate and capital flight of billions of dollars. "No one questions that the economy is running well," one analyst said, "but it's running on steroids."

This is Elba Esther's world

The poor quality of public education in Mexico is considered a key factor in explaining migration to the United Stats and the lure of organized crime for many young Mexicans. For many people, the failure of the schools has a person's name: Elba Esther Gordillo, the flamboyant chief of Mexico's behemoth teachers union. A profile of the hugely powerful Gordillo by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson -- for which "La Maestra" declined to be interviewed -- lays bare how entrenched power hierarchies in Mexico reinforce crushing class barriers for millions.

A 6,000-year sentence in Guatemala

Four former Guatamalan soldiers were handed a stunning sentence of more than 6,000 years each for involvement in a notorious massacre during Guatemala's long civil war. Although the maximum time anyone can actually spend behind bars in Guatemala is 50 years, the sentences sent a strong message to the international human rights community on the pursuit of justice for wartime atrocities in the small Central American nation. The 1982 Dos Erres massacre that led to Tuesday's sentencing involved the systematic rape and brutal beating deaths of 201 civilians. The former soldiers maintain their innocence. 

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico. Credit: Associated Press

The week in Latin America: Peru's African legacy

Susana baca times

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:

Significant court ruling in Mexico

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled that human-rights abuse claims against the military must be tried in civilian courts and no longer in closed-door military tribunals.

The ruling presents a test to Mexico's fledgling civilian justice system, still in dire need of reform, as well as President Felipe Calderon's military-led strategy against organized crime. Abuse claims against Mexico's armed forces have skyrocketed since soldiers and marines were dispatched to the streets in 2006 to combat the country's drug cartels.

Searching for the missing children of El Salvador

Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood was recently in El Salvador, where he reported a profile of an organization, named Pro-Busqueda, which uses the modern tools of social media as well as "old–fashioned grunt work" to locate missing children from El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Read the story here

Excavating Afro-Peruvian history

From Peru, Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson offers a look at an acclaimed singer who is seeking to reclaim and celebrate the country's rich history of African migration and culture.

One such icon of the Afro-Peruvian past, says singer Susana Baca, is the instrument known as the cajon, or box, which Baca has incorporated into her records. "A lot of people saw this as the music of the slaves," she explains. "They were ashamed of it."

Gun scandal grows in the United States

With wide implications for Mexico and its conflict against organized crime, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal continued to reverberate north of the border. This week, the federal government imposed a tougher rule for the reporting of semiautomatic weapon sales in border states.

Revelations from the scandal, in which deadly weapons were knowingly "walked" into Mexico by U.S. agents, confirm that the United States government has been essentially arming both sides of the drug war in Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian singer Susana Baca, left, in the village of Santa Barbara, Peru. Credit: Giancarlo Aponte, For The Times

Humala claims victory in Peru elections, beating the Fujimori name

Ollanta humala campaign afp

Former Peruvian military officer Ollanta Humala has been named the winner of Sunday's presidential election, news that briefly sent Peru's stock market into a jittery plunge, reports L.A. Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson from Lima.

Humala ran strong among the poor in Peru, who have been left out of the country's strong economic growth in recent years. His opponent, Keiko Fujimori -- daughter of the disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori -- found much of her support among Peru's affluent establishment in Lima. Both had unpleasant historical legacies to overcome.

Fujimori in particular appeared unable to shake memories of the human-rights atrocities committed during her father's presidency and the war against the Shining Path. During the campaign, she was pressured into apologizing for the forced sterilization of an estimated 300,000 impoverished women -- yet kept the official in charge of that program by her side as an aide.

Many Peruvians told reporters they were fearful a vote for Keiko would be like a vote for her father. The elder Fujimori remains jailed in Peru on charges of corruption and human-rights abuses.

In Humala's previous run for the presidency, he was cast as a radical nationalist in the mold of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. This time around, he presented himself as a more moderate leftist, similar to the hugely popular former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. At one point, Humala even swore on a Bible that he would respect democracy and the Peruvian constitution.

"We won't expropriate even a dog," he said.

After stocks plunged on Monday, they bounced back on Tuesday as Humala promised he would maintain policies to keep up Peru's growth and seek to maintain strong ties with the United States. He assumes the presidency, for a five-year term, on July 28.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Supporters of Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala rally before a campaign poster. Credit: Agence France-Presse

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

Kalimba, Mexican pop star, sought on rape allegations [UPDATED]

UPDATE: News outlets in Mexico were reporting Thursday evening that Kalimba has been detained by U.S. immigration authorities in Texas. Details were not immediately available.

 Kalimba mexico rape allegations

A Mexican judge in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo on Wednesday ordered the arrest of pop singer Kalimba on charges that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl in a hotel room in December.

Authorities in the tourism-heavy state have alerted the attorney general in Mexico City, where Kalimba lives, that an arrest warrant has been issued for him, and law enforcement authorities in other states have also been notified (link in Spanish).

Since the allegations surfaced late last month, the case has snowballed in typical gossip fashion, mixing sex, celebrity and race.

Kalimba was in Chetumal, a city south of Cancun near the border with Belize, on the night of Dec. 18 for a DJ gig at a venue called Buda Bar. He reportedly was accompanied back to his hotel by a manager and two teenage girls who worked at his event as hostesses. At some point early the next morning, alleges one of the girls, age 17,  Kalimba raped her.

Kalimba has maintained in interviews that he did not assault anyone and that the accuser accompanied him to to the airport the next day -- a sign, he says, that anything that happened that night was consensual. Kalimba has not said whether he knew the girls were minors before having them over at his hotel.

Members of the accuser's family, along with the Quintana Roo Atty. Gen. Francisco Alor Quezada, say Kalimba forced the sexual encounter and should face justice. Alor has promised in interviews that Kalimba will face jail time if the allegations are proven. The singer's supporters, meanwhile, have charged on social-networking sites that the two girls who spent the night in his hotel room are out for money and fame.

The case is also drawing attention because Kalimba is afromestizo -- a minority Mexican with dominant African racial heritage in a country where a wide majority of the population is mixed Indian-Spanish. On social-networking sites and in some tabloids, the case has generated jokes and innuendo over Kalimba's race. One tabloid recently used the headline "Se Las Ve Negras!," which can mean he faces a difficult time or is in trouble while also using a word for black or dark, on a cover story on Kalimba's case.

In Mexico, physical difference is often highlighted or mocked in public forums -- a fact many Mexicans say is harmless and not rooted in racism. The jokes often extend into the largest media platforms in the country. In a report last year, The Times' Tracy Wilkinson examined the use of actors in blackface on a popular morning show on the Televisa network during the World Cup in South Africa.

Kalimba Marichal, 28, is a familiar face in Mexican pop. He began working as a child screen actor at a young age, and provided the singing voiceovers for Simba in the Latin American version of Disney's hit film "The Lion King."

He then began performing in a pop group named OV7, alongside his sister M'Balia, and then started a solo career in 2004. Kalimba was born in Mexico City and has a daughter.

The singer's whereabouts were not known Thursday. If charged and convicted of raping a minor, Kalimba would face between 25 and 50 years in prison, according to Quintana Roo state law. The manager with Kalimba during his night at Buda Bar, Gerard Michel Manel Aguilar, is also sought on assault charges.

The singer has defended himself on Twitter, where he's made frequent references to his Christian faith. "Regardless of what happens, thanks to all those who believe the truth," the singer tweeted on Jan. 3. His account has been inactive since the Jan. 4.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican pop singer Kalimba. Credit: Yucatan.com.mx

For the record: A previous version of this post said Kalimba is 27. An earlier version also gave an incorrect headline for a tabloid report.

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega dubbed 'Chavez Mini-Me' in leaked U.S. cables

Daniel ortega hugo chavez

The president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, has received almost $1 billion in aid from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela -- sometimes in "suitcases full of cash" sent from Caracas -- a relationship that prompted a U.S. diplomat to dub Ortega a "Chavez Mini-Me," leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show.

Ortega, the cables say, also funds his party's political campaigns with money from drug traffickers and once bribed a prominent Nicaraguan boxer to stump for him in public in exchange for not facing sexual assault charges -- which Ortega himself has faced, as alleged by his stepdaughter.

The batch of new cables, released by WikiLeaks and published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais and other sites, paint a deeply unflattering portrait of the ex-guerrilla leader, asking at one point of Ortega's foreign-policy ambitions: "Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil Wannabe?"

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