La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Tracy Wilkinson

U.S. cables on Mexico: Unprepared for a drug war?

Bodies monterrey drug war mexico

Freshly dumped secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reveal that top American advisers to Mexico's government have been dismayed by that nation's efforts to dismantle powerful drug-trafficking groups, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

The cables suggest an active and close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican anti-drug authorities, and a sense that high-profile victories against the drug organizations are believed necessary to maintain support among the Mexican public for the drug war. The cables praise Mexican President Felipe Calderon for attacking the cartels "head on" but offer a frank assessment of an overall unpreparedness for the complexities of the task among Mexico's civilian and military institutions.

The four-year conflict has left at least 30,000 dead. Meanwhile, narcotics continue to move almost unabated into the United States and the death tolls rise daily.

Mexico has had a handful of arrests and killings of "high-value targets," but more substantive victories are difficult to obtain as the country's justice system, intelligence infrastructure, and military remain far from achieving "modernization," the cables show.

Here's a breakdown of key findings in two of six new U.S. cables from Mexico, released Thursday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Continue reading »

The troubled state of Tamaulipas: 'The narcos rule our lives'

Reynosa barletti la times

Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico's northeast across from Texas, is currently the site of some of the most severe clashes in Mexico's drug war. Fierce fighting between drug gangs and the military in the streets of several cities has been reported, and at least one town emptied out in response to the violence, its residents becoming "refugees" in their own country.

A few weeks ago, a battle in the city of Matamoros ended in the death of the Gulf cartel capo known as "Tony Tormenta." News reports across the border made it sound terrifying.

Tamaulipas' crisis stems mainly from a turf fight between the state's two chief criminal organizations. The Gulf cartel and its splinter group, the Zetas (originally composed of former Mexican special forces soldiers), are battling over routes used to send drugs into the United States.

For people in Tamaulipas attempting to go about their daily lives, the drug war is a source of confusion, fear and helplessness.

Here are two recent in-depth reports from the state by Los Angeles Times correspondents in Mexico, Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson.

Continue reading »

Report: The Salvadoran ex-guerrilla advising Mexico's drug-war leaders

Salinas villalobos la jornada

Nearly 30,000 people, the latest figure being used, have died in Mexico's drug war in the nearly four years since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the military to disrupt the country's drug-trafficking organizations.

Calderon's administration has consistently claimed that the high casualty rate is a sign of success. The Mexican president might have a former guerrilla commander to thanks for that approach.

As The Times' Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson reports, the most influential mind behind Calderon's drug-war strategy is a man named Joaquin Villalobos, an ex-rebel leader from El Salvador who has rebranded himself as an Oxford-educated security consultant. In recent speeches, op-eds and interviews, Calderon's rhetoric on the drug war is almost indistinguishable from that of Villalobos, Wilkinson writes. They both claim that rising numbers of dead are a sign that Mexico's cartels are eliminating one another, and that Mexican society must be prepared to absorb more violence in the overall effort against drugs.

Read the whole story here.

The reach of Villalobos' influence in recent security policy in Mexico is apparent in the image above, published in January in the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish). Villalobos, right, is handing over a weapon to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the controversial president of Mexico between 1988 and 1994. The gun was given personally to Villalobos as a gift by none other than Fidel Castro, the paper says, and the photo was taken inside Los Pinos, Mexico's presidential residence.

Villalobos has worked as a consultant off and on for years in Mexico, as well as for Colombia's right-wing former president Alvaro Uribe. From his guerrilla days with the FMLN and EPR movements in El Salvador, Villalobos remains implicated to this day in the execution of poet Roque Dalton.

Today, Villalobos is a seen as a "guru" among Calderon's advisors in Mexico. The ex-guerrilla, who may be mulling a future run for the presidency of El Salvador, laid out his security advice for Mexico's drug war in an essay published in the magazine Nexos on Jan. 1. Here's the link in Spanish for "Twelve Myths of the Narco War." His "myths" are:

1. "We should not have confronted organized crime."

2. "Mexico is Colombian-izing and is in danger of becoming a failed state."

3. "The intense debate over insecurity is a sign of its worsening."

4. "Deaths and violence is a sign that we are losing the war."

5. "Three years is a long time, the plan has failed."

6. "Attacks by narcos prove they are powerful."

7. "Let's first do away with corruption and poverty."

8. "There are powerful politicians and businessmen behind narco-trafficking."

9. "The only way out is to negotiate with the narco-traffickers."

10. "The strategy should guide itself to the legalization of drugs."

11. "The military's participation is negative and should be drawn back."

12. "The fastest and most effective end to crime is the pursuit of justice by its own account."

Here's an automated translation of the piece into English, alternating between sentences. La Jornada offers a rebuttal of the piece here, in Spanish, and here, in automated translation to English.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, left, receives a weapon as a gift from former Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos, in Los Pinos in Mexico on April 7, 1993. Credit: La Jornada

Drug-war film won't compete for Mexico in next Academy Awards

Infierno still latimes

Mexico did not submit the controversial and politically charged box-office hit "El Infierno" for the next Academy Awards in the United States, choosing instead a film starring Javier Bardem as its official submission. The Academy of Film Arts and Sciences in Mexico selected "Biutiful," directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, to compete in the foreign-language film category in the 2011 Oscars.

But Mexico's film academy did choose "El Infierno," directed by Luis Estrada, to compete for Mexico in Spain's Goya awards.

Estrada, in fact, declined to have his film considered for the Oscars, he said in an interview in the daily Milenio (link in Spanish.) In the same interview, Estrada called it a "white-gloved slap in the face" that Mexico's government gave his film its strictest audience rating, preventing anyone younger than 18 to see it in theaters. ("But I do know the film has had enormous success, especially in pirated form," the filmmaker added.)

"El Infierno" sparked controversy in Mexico for its bleak and brutal depiction of the country's drug war, as Tracy Wilkinson writes in a recent feature story on director Estrada. "Mexicans have become the victims and the executioners, all at the same time," Estrada told Wilkinson in an interview.

Inarritu's "Biutiful," still somewhat shrouded in mystery, is not yet widely released in Mexico but will premiere at the upcoming Morelia International Film Festival. Bardem won best actor honors for his performance in the film at this year's Cannes film festival. The film takes place in Barcelona -- far from Mexico -- and follows Bardem's character Uxbal, who is "connected with the afterlife."

Here's the trailer.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A still from Luis Estrada's "El Infierno." Credit: Bandido Films

Mexico landslide turns out to be false alarm

Santa maria landslide oaxaca reuters

The Tuesday landslide in Mexico's state of Oaxaca that mobilized the nation's military and federal government for potentially hundreds of fatalities turns out to be much less devastating than initially thought.

In fact, as of Wednesday, there are no confirmed deaths. Eleven people are listed as missing so far. Ken Ellingwood, reporting from Oaxaca City, and Tracy Wilkinson note that only a few homes were said to have been destroyed or damaged.

Those figures contrast significantly from Gov. Ulises Ruiz's original estimate that hundreds of homes were buried in the landslide in the village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec and, as his government said at one point, up to 1,000 could be missing or dead (link in Spanish).

The radically altered damage and death figures in this case illustrate the always-dicey nature of gathering information on a breaking news event in a remote area, both for officials and the reporters who relay their statements to the public.

In the initial hours since word of the landslide reached beyond the village, access to Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec was severely hampered by damaged roads, yet officials appear to have spread the highest estimate possible of damage. In the minute-by-minute news world, this generated an atmosphere where media organizations, including The Times, scrambled to send reporters to the area.

The Mexico City daily El Universal, in Spanish, narrates how the incident played out, calling Tuesday a day of "national confusion."

Now the head of Oaxaca's state firefighters is threatening to sue the communal authorities in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec who first alerted the state civil protection agency about the landslide (link in Spanish). Manuel Maza Sanchez, the state's fire agency director, says the landslide false alarm "distracted" firefighters from other areas also in need of attention as Oaxaca and the entire southern Mexico and Central American region continue to recover from persistent rain and major storms.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A view of the landslide in the Oaxacan community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. Credit: Reuters


Report: Mexico is not Colombia, here's why

Mayor mexico body reuters

Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."

Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.

In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:

The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.

Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."

Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.

State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.

What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."

The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."

On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.

On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.

In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Another step toward capitalism in Cuba

Prepping sandwiches cuba ap

Cuba's plan to lay off half a million state workers is another bid to save its economy through gradual but strictly controlled reforms that lean toward, if not fully embrace, capitalism, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

Since it lost its chief patron when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the tiny Communist nation has struggled to sustain itself in a globalizing market economy. Recent help from Venezuela, the Cuban revolution's foremost cheerleader in Latin America, "can't last forever," Wilkinson writes.

Under the new plan, unproductive or overpaid state workers will be let go and allowed to enter into small mom-and-pop-style businesses. Lack of expertise and resources stirs doubt about how successful the plan might be, but a similar program for taxi drivers suggests that there's money to be had for the average Cuban.

Private taxi drivers make 33 times more than state-employed taxi drivers.

Wilkinson writes: "The list of approved businesses includes upholstery; repair of dolls, toys and umbrellas; animal shodding; music teaching; sales of flowers, herbal medicines and brushes; and manicures and eyebrow waxing."

And then there's the Castro quotient. In recent interviews with foreign journalists, Fidel Castro, the regime's looming former leader, has praised Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, and said Cuba's socialist economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore." He later backtracked on the comments.

Castro and his brother, Raul, who is now Cuba's president, have attempted to make it clear that they are not abandoning the revolution, or at least their grip on power. Since July, the government has released 36 political prisoners -- but booted most of them to Spain. The intelligence firm Stratfor reports that when Fidel Castro delivered a speech to students at the University of Havana earlier this month, which he used to backtrack on the economic-model statement, the aging former leader wore green military fatigues for the first time in four years. 

So far, Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, has offered to help Cuba with its layoffs and small-business development plans. On Monday, a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives said he is not giving up on seeking legislation that would relax travel and trade bans between Cuba and the United States.

The Times editorial board backs relaxing the bans, and so does the White House. In a 2009 story from the island, Wilkinson reported that "Havana is crawling with Americans these days."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Workers prepare Cuban sandwiches at a snack bar in Havana. Credit: Associated Press

Mexico's Father Miguel Hidalgo, a 'father' in more ways than one

Miguel hidalgo epa photo

It may not be the best of times for Mexico, but the country is nonetheless facing an enormously symbolic signpost in its history today with a parade and massive public party in Mexico City to celebrate 200 years of independence from Spain. Celebrations are being held across the country and in Mexican communities around the world.

How did it all start? With Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest in the tiny provincial town of Dolores, Guanajuato. In the early-morning hours of Sept. 16, 1810, he rang the bells of his parish and gave the "grito," or call to arms, unleashing a violent uprising against Spanish rule in Mexico that had been building up since 1808.

"Death to the bad government!" Hidalgo cried, in a call that is reenacted late on the night of every Sept. 15 but with less specific cries now of "Viva Mexico!" Today, the "grito" is considered the start of Mexico's 11-year war of independence, Sept. 16 is officially Independence Day, and Hidalgo is considered the "father of the fatherland."

It turns out the priest has more claims on the "father" appellation than is generally known.

Tracy Wilkinson has all the randy historical details, and more, in this feature on Mexico's bicentennial in The Times. Did you know that at least one Mexican "sexologist" has concluded that "Revolutionary icon Pancho Villa probably was impotent, while his cohort Emiliano Zapata just might have been bisexual"?

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A portrait of Father Miguel Hidalgo at the National Palace in Mexico City. Credit: EPA

In Mexico's drug kingpin landscape, who will replace 'La Barbie'?

La barbie mexico kingpin latimes

Federal police in Mexico on Monday captured a notorious drug kingpin, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also known as "La Barbie." Valdez, 37, is the Texas-born don with boyish blondish looks, considered attractive in Mexico, who operated within the Beltran Leyva drug-trafficking organization.

Authorities presented Valdez in a customary parade before the Mexican press Tuesday morning. The captured kingpin, wearing the same jeans and polo shirt from his Monday arrest, looked down a few times and smiled sheepishly, or shrugged, ignoring questions (see video in Spanish at El Universal). Valdez allegedly trafficked a ton of cocaine a month, federal police said (link in Spanish).

The arrest is a victory for President Felipe Calderon and his struggling, nearly four-year-long assault on powerful cartels, but few people here are likely cheering at the news. In Mexico, the removal of one drug-trafficking boss usually leads to a flurry of violence as various deputies, or even outsiders, attempt to move in and fill the power vacuum. Valdez had been locked in just such a battle with Hector Beltran Leyva, brother to Arturo Beltran Leyva, the cartel chief who died in a shootout with Mexican marines in December. 

As Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times: "But arresting Valdez will not necessarily quell the violence since others may rise to fight for control of the Beltran Leyva operations."

The question for many now is, 'Who will take La Barbie's place?' A top anti-organized crime investigator told reporters that Valdez has already told them of a "summit" held last year in Cuernavaca between top drug kingpins, an attempt to quell the surging violence across the country (link in Spanish). But the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva caused those talks to break down.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Edgar Valdez Villarreal, or "La Barbie," after his arrest Monday. Credit: Mexico federal policeMexico

Mexico City mayor sues Guadalajara bishop over gay marriage remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading »

Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

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 »



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