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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: U.S. politics

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

The week in Latin America: Unrest continues in Chile

Chile national strike

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

1 dead in Chile national strike

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

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

Casino attack leaves Mexico in mourning

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

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

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

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

Calderon calls on U.S. society to curb its drug use

Felipe calderon press conference

The White House on Friday issued a rare statement by U.S. President Obama on the deadly attack against civilians in a casino in northern Mexico, while President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered sharp words on American complicity in the violent conflict that has left tens of thousands dead in his country.

Obama's statement said:

I strongly condemn the barbaric and reprehensible attack in Monterrey, Mexico, yesterday. On behalf of the American people, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this difficult time. 

The president called Mexico's campaign against organized crime groups "a brave fight" and said the U.S. "will remain a partner in this fight." The statement renewed a consistent American commitment since President George W. Bush's administration to support Calderon, in office since late 2006, and his government's efforts against powerful drug cartels.

On Friday, Calderon visited the site of the attack that killed more than 50 gamblers and employees at the popular Casino Royale in Mexico's wealthiest city. Calderon again issued a call to the U.S. to do more to tackle the American demand for drugs and the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.

In the prepared remarks released by the president's office, Calderon said the extortion-related attack in Monterrey was due to one primary factor, "the movement and sale of drugs to the United States." Calderon went on (link in Spanish):

Part of the tragedy that Mexicans are living has to do with the fact that we are alongside the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and at the same time, the biggest vendor of weapons in the world, which pays billions of dollars every year to the criminals who supply them with narcotics.

These ... dollars end up arming and organizing the criminals, and places them in their service and against the citizens.

This is why it is my duty, also, to make a call to the society, the Congress, and the government of the United States. I ask them to reflect on this tragedy that we Mexicans and many other countries in Latin America are living, as a consequence, in great part, to the insatiable consumption of drugs in which millions and millions of Americans participate.

Separately, the Obama administration is facing domestic political pressure over the secret gun-tracking program dubbed Fast and Furious, which resulted in hundreds of weapons being "walked" into Mexico and then lost, fueling drug-related violence. Read recent coverage in The Times of Operation Fast and Furious here and here.

Since 2007, when Bush and Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has sent almost $1.5 billion in aid to Mexico for its fight against the cartels, a foreign-aid package similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia that sought to help that South American nation fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.

RELATED:

Searchers comb torched ruins of casino where 52 died

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Emails to White House didn't mention gun sting

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, along with First Lady Margarita Zavala and top officials, Friday, August 26, 2011. Credit: Presidencia.gob.mx

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

'Fast and Furious' scandal grows with revelation that Mexican cartel suspects may be paid U.S. informants

Mexico weapons seized june

Are high-profile suspects in Mexican drug cartels also paid informants for U.S. federal investigators? If so, could a brewing scandal in Washington implicate more U.S. agencies in the ongoing drug-related violence in Mexico?

Kenneth Melson, the embattled chief of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), made the earth-shaking revelation in testimony early last week, The Times reports. Melson reportedly told congressional leaders that Mexican cartel suspects tracked by his agents in a controversial gun-tracing program were also operating as paid informants for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI.

The revelation is further complicating an already tangled scandal unfolding in Washington that ties U.S. weapons to the violent drug war in Mexico. The conflict has left about 40,000 dead in 4 1/2 years. In effect, the scandal also points to a deeper involvement of the U.S. government in Mexico's drug war than the public has previously known or suspected.

Times reporters have been actively covering the ATF scandal since it broke earlier this year. Using our stories, La Plaza explains below what is at stake.

Continue reading »

Cartel corruption reaches into the ranks of U.S. border agents, officials say

Alan bersin reforma archive

Mexican drug cartels are increasingly luring U.S. border agents into smuggling operations with offers of cash and sex, authorities acknowledged in Washington last week.

Top officials in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told a Senate subcommittee during a hearing on Thursday that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are attempting to generate "systematic corruption" among the ranks of U.S. customs and border patrol agents, forcing the agency to open hundreds of internal investigations on employees.

Charles Edwards, acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told the subcommittee that corruption on the border has taken the form of "cash bribes, sexual favors, and other gratuities in return for allowing contraband or undocumented aliens through primary inspection lanes or even protecting or escorting border crossings," according to a transcript of the official's testimony.

Since 2004, authorities have made 127 arrests or indictments against border employees for acts of corruption "including drug smuggling, alien smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy," said Alan Bersin, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner.

Continue reading »

MEXICO: Poet's peace caravan to end drug war approaches Ciudad Juarez

Caravan peace march morelia

Every few years in Mexico, a grass-roots social movement pops up that seeks to shake up the status quo, take on longstanding corruption, the wide gap between rich and poor, and the often-unresponsive political class.

There was the Zapatistas' march to Mexico City in 2001, the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador "vote by vote" movement after the presidential election in 2006, and the "nullify your vote" movement during the 2009 midterm elections.

Each has expressed a simmering discontent. Some see Mexico as little changed over the years, despite the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the arrival of democratic pluralism with the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000.

This year, the movement nudging its way into headlines in Mexico is led by a poet named Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in Cuernavaca. L.A. Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood profiled Sicilia here. Sicilia is calling for a "re-foundation of the state," or a "peaceful revolution" in which the primary and immediate goal is to halt the violence of the drug war.

It's a tall order. Mexico's war is a multi-theater conflict pitting the resources of the U.S. and Mexican governments against combat-ready drug-trafficking organizations that reach across borders and show little hesitation to kill anyone who stands in their way. Innocents, migrants passing through Mexican territory, women activists who have boldly criticized criminals in public — many have met their end at the hands of cartel assassins.

Many Mexicans say they feel caught in the cross-fire between the cartels and the country's military and federal police. So they've taken to the streets, marching in cities from Monterrey to Mexico City, dressed in white, demanding peace. After his son's death, Sicilia vowed never to write another poem again, striking a chord, (link in Spanish) and called tens of thousands to march alongside him.

At the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo on May 8, Sicilia delivered an impassioned rebuke of President Felipe Calderon's strategy against organized crime, seeking to crystallize the frustrations (link in Spanish) of residents fed up with the extreme violence.

Mexicans across the world (link in Spanish) have held concurrent protests and news conferences denouncing the drug war, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, including in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

On Friday, Sicilia's "peace caravan" is expected to roll into Ciudad Juarez for the signing of a "national pact" to change course as he called for on May 8 in Mexico City.

Activists from both sides of the border are set to converge on a city that has become the dark emblem of how horrific the drug-related violence can get. More than 8,000 people have died violently in Ciudad Juarez since the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began battling there three years ago.

Drafts of the pact refer to six demands: Initiating a "new path to peace with justice and dignity"; an end to the war strategy against organized crime with a renewed focus on human rights; attacking corruption and impunity; attacking the economic roots and profits of organized crime; attending to the "emergency" facing Mexico's youth; initiating "participatory democracy" and democracy in mass media.

Ultimately, the pact appears to be a symbolic gesture. But can the movement translate emotional power into political strength? Can it avoid the fate of other social movements — being swallowed up by established political parties? Is Javier Sicilia's grief enough to force a change in the anti-crime strategy?

So far, the Mexican government has signaled it will not turn back in the drug cartel crackdown, an operation backed by the U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative. Both governments last week rejected the findings of a high-profile international commission calling for the legalization of some drugs.

On Wednesday, new U.S. government reports found that the "Obama administration is unable to show that the billions of dollars spent in the war on drugs have significantly stemmed the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States," reports The Times

For updates on the caravan to Ciudad Juarez, follow the Twitter hashtag #CaravanaMX.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Javier Sicilia's peace caravan passing through Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

Drug war peace march zapatistas efe

The governments of the United States and Mexico promptly rejected this week the conclusions of a high-profile international report calling for the "legal regulation" of some drugs.

In separate statements, the governments signaled that they would not back away from current strategies in the war on drugs, which in Mexico has resulted in more than 38,000 deaths in 4 1/2 years and is backed by more than $1 billion in U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative.

As The Times reported Thursday from Mexico City and Washington, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is urging governments to decriminalize drug consumption and experiment with legalization and regulation of some narcotics, especially marijuana. The report calls the 4-decade-old war on drugs a failure.

"We can no longer ignore the extent to which drug-related violence, crime and corruption in Latin America are the results of failed drug war policies," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria said in a prepared statement tied to the report's release. "Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition."

Here's the commission's website, where visitors can download the full report in English or Spanish. The commission includes a former president of Brazil, a former president of Mexico, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several business leaders.

On Thursday, as the drug-policy report was being released in New York, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a statement arguing against its recommendations.

"The Obama administration's efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety," the statement said.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon's government has consistently stated that it does not support the legalization of drugs but remains open to debate. The position was reaffirmed this week by the president's top national-security spokesman, Alejandro Piore (link in Spanish).

Piore said the Mexican government "categorically rejects the impression that in Mexico, by definition, a stronger application of the law on the part of the authorities shall result in an increase in violence on the part of the narco-traffickers."

Legalization, his statement also said, "does not do away with organized crime, nor with its rivalries and violence."

Read the full L.A. Times story on the commission's report here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Masked Zapatistas, holding signs that read "No More Blood," march in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, on May 8. Credit: EFE

Former border agent says he was fired for drug-war comments

Bryan gonzalez aclu border patrol agent

A former U.S. Border Patrol agent says he was fired for expressing his opinions on the drug war in Mexico while on the job.

Bryan Gonzalez, the former agent, alleges in a lawsuit filed last week that he was fired for telling a fellow agent that the drug-related violence in Mexico would end if the United States legalized drugs. He made the comments in April 2009 during a patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico.

According to the complaint, available here, Gonzalez's remarks prompted an internal affairs investigation at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in El Paso, which found that he held "personal views that were contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and esprit de corps."

The suit names his former supervisor and was filed in U.S. District Court in West Texas.

Gonzalez's case, in which he is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, has been publicized by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that supports drug legalization. A press officer at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in El Paso declined to comment on the Gonzalez complaint, citing the pending litigation.

Gonzalez's case could prove "tricky" in court because he was fired one month before his two-year probationary period as an agent was to end, Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the ACLU in New Mexico, said in a telephone interview. Yet the ACLU is convinced Gonzalez's 1st Amendment rights were violated, he said.

"I think it was very clear that he was being fired simply because of the content of his political opinions. There was no misconduct or anything else cited in his termination. It was very explicitly chalked up to opinions that they considered contrary to the core beliefs of the Border Patrol," McCoy said. "Bryan Gonzalez, our plaintiff, would disagree with that strongly. His belief would be that having an opinion is very patriotic."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Bryan Gonzalez, right, at his academy graduation.

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

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