La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Travel

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:

Aeromexico pilot held in Madrid on suspicion of smuggling cocaine

Aeromexico epa madrid spain cocaine

A Mexican airline co-pilot is under arrest in Spain on suspicion of attempting to smuggle 92 pounds of cocaine in his personal luggage on an Aeromexico flight he helped pilot.

The case marks the second time in nine months that Aeromexico employees have been arrested at Madrid's Barajas Airport on suspicion of smuggling cocaine after flying there on Mexico's remaining legacy airline. In December, three Aeromexico flight attendants were arrested after allegedly attempting to enter Spain with more than 308 pounds of the drug between them, as La Plaza reported.

The flight attendants, all men, were traveling as tourists but carrying Aeromexico identification. The recent arrest is considerably more serious. The suspect, Ruben Garcia Garcia, had served as first officer on an Aeromexico Boeing 777 flight to the Spanish capital from Mexico City when he was arrested Aug. 17.

In a statement posted on its website, the airline said it "deeply regretted" the arrest and that Garcia had been fired (link in Spanish). Mexico's federal transportation agency on Wednesday revoked Garcia's pilot license, and the national pilots union said it would not come to his defense (links in Spanish).

Garcia was being held at a Spanish jail while awaiting charges. Federal authorities in Mexico said they were also investigating (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A file image of a pilot and Aeromexico airliner. Credit: EPA

Internal migration flows below the radar in Mexico

Bernal queretaro monolith daniel hernandez

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

A few weeks ago, I took a late Friday night bus from Mexico City to Queretaro to visit friends.

I spent the weekend relaxing at bars, cafes and restaurants. I took a day trip to an officially designated "pueblo magico," Bernal, where an ancient stone monolith is a regional tourist draw. I finished the weekend in a crowded "college-style" bar to watch a big soccer match for Mexico over a BBQ hamburger and a Mexican lager, with U.S. school pennants hanging overhead.

Queretaro is welcoming and clearly prosperous. Over two days, I met Mexicans who had moved there from Chiapas, Veracruz, Guanajuato and elsewhere.

"Why do you live here?" I asked a guy outside a bar one night.

"They pay better than in Veracruz," the fellow replied. "And, well ... it's safe, right?"

The exchange stuck with me. Contradictions abound in Mexico, especially when it comes to the country's current overall stability.

Mexico's economy is growing at a healthier pace than that of the United States and has a lower official unemployment rate (5.3%) than its northern neighbor (9.2%), though the joblessness rate is deceptive because it doesn't include millions of Mexicans who work in the poorly paid informal economy as sidewalk vendors, day laborers and the like. 

Yet, at the same time, Mexico is home to more than 52 million people living in poverty, nearly half the national population. That figure is up by 3 million from three years ago, according to an independent government study released Friday and reported in The Times. Overall, Mexico's recovery from the 2009 global recession is among the slowest in Latin America, a disappointing figure after a decade of free-market policies under federal governments led by the National Action Party, or PAN.

In other words, realities on the ground in Mexico are often more complicated and contradictory than the headlines or government propaganda can tell us.

Continue reading »

Jose Clemente Orozco, master muralist, shines in an overwhelming exhibit in Mexico

La_trinchera orozco san ildefonso 1

The Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) is the subject of an immense and exhausting survey up now at a downtown Mexico City museum, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso.  A total of 358 pieces fill more than a dozen exhibit halls, including previously unexhibited drawings of studies for some of Orozco's most famous murals.

"Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad" opened in September to coincide with last year's bicentennial celebrations. Its run has been extended through the end of February. The viewing experience requires hours. The show's setting is also significant.

Orozco painted some of his lesser-known but most politically charged fresco murals along the arched corridors of the colonial-era college, founded by Jesuits in 1588, just 60 years after the fall of the Aztecs. The frescoes depict snooty members of Mexico's elite and scenes of violent warfare from the country's revolution a century ago. In one mural, in the main stairwell, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez is shown sitting nude alongside La Malinche, his Indian interpreter and mistress. A faceless mixed-race man lies in the shadows beneath them -- offering a less-than-ringing endorsement of the fruits of the conquest.

For Mexicans who know their history and the "great" artists of the 20th century, this is familiar stuff. But for visitors and foreigners, "Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad" offers a surprisingly straightforward introduction to the expressive range of a master who remains controversial to this day.

Crueldad orozco san ildefonso 2

Orozco was an activist painter and a member of an elite himself: the crowd of Marxist bohemians and, later, political-cultural establishment in Mexico that was led partly by his contemporaries, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.

As the exhibit demonstrates, Orozco was deeply commited to the causes in vogue in his day. But he was also skeptical. For Orozco, the revolution was "farce, drama, barbarity, buffoons and dwarfs trailing along after the gentlemen of noose and dagger." We see this disdain throughout the exhibit, particularly in his visceral ink drawings, some of which could be ripped from our contemporary headlines with titles like "Cruelty" (seen above), "Hanging Man," and "Indifference."

For the opposition newspaper El Ahuizote, Orozco produced scathing political cartoons targeting just about every stripe of power broker. One, seen below, shows major politicians dressed in drag, with only a saintly nun, representing the nation or homeland, offering a moral contrast.

El ahuizote orozco san ildefonso 3

"Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad" originated at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in the western city of Guadalajara, where it was organized by curator Miguel Cervantes. That's where Orozco's masterpiece the "Man of Fire" fresco is located. The San Ildefonso mounting made me wish I had seen this show back in Jalisco.

In the Mexico City setting, the exhibit falters in connecting the experience of viewing the fresco murals at San Ildefonso with the drawings, paintings, and portraits in the exhibit halls. Furthermore, the reproductions of the murals that Orozco created elsewhere, including at Pomona and Dartmouth colleges in the United States, are small, placed close to the floor, and difficult to absorb in the dim gallery lighting.

The reproductions were "printed in that size so that the public could get a general idea of the compositions and read texts on the genesis of each [mural]," Cervantes explained, in an e-mail message.

Rina en cabaret orozco san ildefonso 4

In any case, the range and quality of Orozco's works as shown here outweigh any potential faults. There are often surprising pieces, in many styles and genres. And they are presented in a clear, chronological fashion, devoid of florid curatorial arguments or historical revisionism.

For readers in Mexico City, Gregorio Luke, the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., will narrate a presentation featuring to-scale projections of famous Orozco murals on Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. The event is free but space is limited.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top photo: ' La Trinchera,' 1926, fresco / Courtesy of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. Second photo: 'Crueldad,' 1926-1928, ink on paper / Courtesy Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. Third photo: 'El Ahuizote,' Nov. 25, 1911 / Photo by Daniel Hernandez. Bottom photo: 'Riña en un Cabaret,' 1944, oil on masonite / Photo by Daniel Hernandez

U.S. opens the door further on travel to Cuba

Cuba tourbus reuters

For the second time since taking office, President Obama eased restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. The relaxed rules are scheduled to take effect by the end of this week.

The policy change announced Friday will, according to the White House, promote "people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."

The changes allow students, academics and religious organizations to more freely request a trip to Cuba, as well as "specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities." In addition, people in the U.S. are now allowed to send up to $500 in remittances to Cuba every three months, or a maximum of $2000 a year. In 2009, the Obama administration eased restrictions to allow Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island.

Here's the White House announcement and the Cuba entry policy page at the U.S. State Department.

Obama relaxed rules that were imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had tightened travel rules liberalized by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, a swinging policy in consecutive U.S. governments over an issue that has confounded American interests for more than 50 years. Cuba is only 90 miles from the coast of Florida yet remains one of only a handful of Communist countries in the world.

But for how long?

A gradual string of market economy reforms have taken effect on the island. Small businesses are popping up. More tourists are arriving. A few weeks ago, a large cruise liner took port in Havana to much fanfare. More U.S. airports will be making flights available. Before, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York were allowed to originate flights destined for Cuba.

The Cuban government hailed the new travel changes as a positive step in a statement, but said they did not go far enough to ease economic pressure generated by the long U.S. trade embargo (link in Spanish).

Cuba, governed by President Raul Castro, brother to former Communist leader Fidel Castro, is mired in corruption, according to a recent Wikileak disclosure. The country also faces widespread criticism for its human rights record, despite the release last year of a group of political dissidents who were released to exile in Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Tourists ride on a double-decker bus along Havana's shorefront 'Malecon' boulevard, November 2010. Credit: Reuters

At least three drug groups are fighting for control in Acapulco, Mexico


With a weekend death toll of more than 30 victims, including 15 who were found decapitated, the Mexican resort city of Acapulco is facing its most gruesome levels of drug-related violence since the start of the drug war in 2006. Authorities in Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, said that in all 31 people died violently in or around the city on Saturday and Sunday (link in Spanish).

Reports said decapitated bodies were found with messages indicating that the killings were ordered by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and Mexico's most-wanted man.

If Sinaloa hit men are indeed active in the Acapulco area, it would suggest a likely escalation in future violence for a city that has seen drug-related killings soar since the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the capo who had controlled the valuable trafficking port.

Beltrán Leyva was killed in an operation led by the Mexican navy in December 2009. Like previous deaths or captures of high-profile drug lords, the sudden absence of a criminal figurehead in the region resulted in a scramble for control among splintering or rival groups. (The same phenomenon, for example, occurred in the Tijuana border area after the deaths or captures of capos in the Arellano Felix cartel.)

Continue reading »

Aeromexico flight attendants held in Spain after cocaine shipment found in luggage

Three Mexican flight attendants have been detained upon arriving in Spain after authorities discovered their luggage contained 140 kilos (308 pounds) of cocaine (link in Spanish). They were identified as three male employees of the Aeromexico airline.

Aeromexico said in a statement Thursday the men were traveling as tourists on non-corporate tickets, and that they've been fired. The three men were found in possession of Aeromexico flight attendant identifications after they were stopped by Spanish anti-drug agents at the Barajas airport in Madrid, Spanish authorities said. They raised suspicion for traveling with identical luggage, the authorities said.

The specific flight number and where it originated within Mexico was not immediately released.

In a statement, the Spanish national police said it was the largest drug shipment ever confiscated at Barajas. The detained men were "taking advantage of their employment as airline flight attendants in an attempt to introduce the drug into our country," the statement said (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Is it safe to eat on the street in Mexico City?

Quesadillas street food in mexico city lesley tellez

Many U.S. travelers in Mexico hold fast to a few overblown myths about culinary life here: Don't trust the water, ever, and avoid those tempting street tacos! Blogger Lesley Tellez suggests a more liberating approach.

"It's a myth that eating any street food in Mexico City will make you sick," writes Tellez, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who now lives in the Mexican capital. At her blog, the Mija Chronicles, Tellez lists a few tips on how to pick and navigate among this city's countless stands of sizzling tacos, fragrant quesadillas and steaming tamales:

1. Pick a street food stand that looks crowded.

2. Glance around and see if the stand looks clean.

3. Who takes the money?

4. The food must be freshly prepared.

5. Feel free to make small talk while you eat, if you speak Spanish.

6. Go during peak hours.

For the details, read the whole post here. Reader comments are also illuminating. One recommends: "Open containers of help-yourself salsa or lime wedges?! I prefer that a place serve its salsas in re-purposed bottles to squirt or pour. Lime wedges should just be handed out."

The Mija Chronicles is part of an active and flourishing food-blogger community in this foodie's dream of a city. La Plaza sometimes peeks into Good Food in Mexico City by Nicholas Gilman, and the blog by food historian Rachel Laudan, who posted earlier this year, "Mexican Potatoes. Why Are They So Lousy?"

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A woman prepares quesadilla at a street stand in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Credit: Lesley Tellez / The Mija Chronicles

Hoping to fly again, jobless flight attendants launch racy calendar in Mexico

Flight attendants mexicana calendar ap

A group of unemployed flight attendants from the defunct Mexicana airline found a novel way to keep travelers' eyes on their case to fly again: a sexy calendar.

The publicity stunt -- in a country where racy calendars adorn untold numbers of workshops and garages -- is meant to drive up interest in getting Mexicana in the air again. The company suspended operations in August after a rapid financial meltdown.

The 2011 calendar features photos of 10 former Mexicana flight attendants in bikinis and aviator sunglasses, posing suggestively before jets or inside a cockpit.

The sexiness aside (for just a moment), the group's calendar is a study in ingenuity. A flight attendant named Coral Perez came up with the idea, telling the Associated Press, "We all needed the money." Perez and her former workmates pitched in their own savings for the calendar's production costs and designed their own outfits.

Continue reading »

Morelia Film Festival: Notes, reflections and winners

Morelia film festival posters plaza

As a first-time visitor to the Morelia International Film Festival, I got more than a full dose of what contemporary cinema in Mexico looks like these days. Indeed, I might have overloaded.

Over the course of 5 ½ days at the festival last week, I managed to watch, by my count, 23 short and feature-length films. Even so I felt like I had only scratched the surface, missing several films I was told were  "must-see." (And in a couple of cases, I admit I stepped out of the theater before waiting for the end of particularly poor flicks.) Below, a few notes and reflections on the Morelia fest.

Continue reading »

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