La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Video

Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

Continue reading »

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

Panic grips fans during shooting near Mexico soccer match [Video]

It wasn't the sort of thing you expect to see during a professional soccer match: a field emptying of players in the middle of play. Within seconds of the first pops of gunfire, frightened fans ducked under their seats for cover, then thousands rushed onto the field, seeking escape, some carrying children.

The Spanish-language video above shows what happened Saturday night during a shootout that erupted outside a game in northern Mexico between the visiting Monarcas of Morelia and the host Santos Laguna in the city of Torreon, Coahuila state. Unlike recent incidents of stadium violence in California, the shootout in Mexico did not leave any dead or seriously injured. But the episode demonstrated the state of perpetual jitters that has come to define daily life for many Mexicans.

As the country's drug cartels battle each other over smuggling routes to the United States and also battle U.S.-backed government security forces, Saturday's shooting shows that Mexicans seem to face the potential threat of gunfire at anytime, anywhere.

This time it happened in Torreon, a city that has suffered a spike of massacres and gun battles since the start of the drug war in 2006. Reports said the gunfire was aimed at a police station outside the stadium, but the shots were loud and close enough to send fans into a panic caught live on television.

Just before the 40-minute mark in the Saturday Santos-Monarcas match, as seen in the video, gunfire is heard echoing through the arena, terrifying players and stands full of Torreon futbol fans.

"This doesn't sound good," the announcer says as players and referees are seen running off the field. "Let's hope this doesn't get out of control."

Torreon stadium shooting Mexico Reuters

The seconds tick, and gunfire continues. After nearly two minutes, without any apparent coordination or announcement, fans who had been ducking behind seats suddenly begin pouring onto the field, heading to a corner of the stadium away from the sound of shooting. Some younger fans are seen hopping and laughing on the turf while others are running with children in their arms. One woman is videotaped weeping.

In this Spanish-language video by El Universal, fans hiding below their seats tell others who are trying to exit, "Don't leave! Don't leave! Get down." People are heard whimpering. Here are photos.

The game between Santos and Monarcas was suspended. Torreon's mayor told reporters his city's police force is under constant attack by suspected drug cartel members, with 17 officers killed so far this year (link in Spanish). The Sinaloa and Zetas cartels are said to be fighting over the Torreon corridor.

President Felipe Calderon took to Twitter to calm Mexicans who were watching the chaos in Torreon live, saying: "The situation is under control." The president's comment sparked numerous retorts by other Twitter users, some asking: "Under control by whom?"

Details on the attack were still murky as of Monday morning. Subsequent reports said bullet holes were discovered inside the venue (link in Spanish).

Overall, Mexico's drug war has left more than 40,000 dead in almost five years, and resulted in unknown numbers of kidnapped, disappeared and internal exiles. The flow of drugs north to the United States has been unhindered despite Calderon's military-led crackdown and his government's arrest or killings of high-profile cartel targets.

Even before the weekend had ended, a song had already been written about the Torreon stadium shooting. See a report in Spanish here, with a video link to the ballad-style corrido that appeared online documenting the event.

"Let's protect the stadiums," the singer wails, "so that our little ones can have a better future."

-- Daniel Hernandez

Video credit: Univision Futbol via Youtube. Photo: Fans duck during the shootout Saturday near the Santos Laguna stadium in Torreon, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

Demonstrations on Mexico drug war offered look at Mexicans abroad

Montreal demonstration may 8 no mas sangre facebook

When large demonstrations in Mexico calling for an end to the drug war grew last spring, communities of citizens abroad perked up and took notice.

Chatter began popping up on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Virtual groups formed. Mexicans living abroad united around a feeling of desperation over a climbing death toll and reacted to a growing sense among Mexicans at home that the government was losing control of the situation.

By May 8, when poet Javier Sicilia led tens of thousands of demonstrators on a march to the historic heart of Mexico City, smaller demonstrations were also held in cities all over the world, including Barcelona, Spain; Buenos Aires; Madrid; Montreal, Canada; Frankfurt, Germany; and in Paris with the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance (links in Spanish).

The demonstrations not only showed that many Mexicans abroad were up-to-date with developments back home, they also offered a window into the large numbers of Mexicans making lives in other countries besides the traditional migration magnet of the United States.

Continue reading »

Flying protest banner intrudes on Mexican president's graduation speech at Stanford [Updated]

No mas sangre calderon yfrog

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered the 2011 commencement address before 30,000 people at Stanford University on Sunday. The event made headlines in Mexico after an unidentified airplane carried a banner over Stanford Stadium during the president's speech with a protest message directed at Mexico's drug war.

"40,000 DEAD!" the banner read. "HOW MANY MORE?"

In a video that Calderon's office released of the speech, the sound of a light aircraft is heard at about the 15-minute mark into the 18-minute address, which Calderon delivered in English.

The president appears either to ignore or not notice the plane with a few quick glances he makes toward the sky, the video shows. Here's an amateur YouTube clip showing the airplane flying over the stadium. Several amateur photos of the plane and banner also quickly popped up on Twitter.

The banner was marked with the logo of an antiwar group in Mexico known as "No más sangre," or, "No more blood." Yet as of Monday, no one had come forward claiming responsibility for the intrusion on Stanford's commencement, and a spokeswoman for the group in Mexico City said they were not involved.

"We would have loved if it were us, but it was not," spokeswoman Nelly Muñohierro told La Plaza on Monday.

"Obviously it had to have been someone with a lot of cash, possibly even a political party, maybe the PRI," she added, referring to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated institutions in Mexico until 2000 and was the brunt of fierce criticism in Calderon's speech. 

Another member of the collective organization, the Mexico-based political scientist John Ackerman, said the group is "not in any way a structured or financed movement that in any way could pay for an airplane over there."

[Update: 11:50 a.m. June 14: Activist poet Javier Sicilia suggested in a press report on Monday that the San Francisco-based organization Global Exchange was behind the protest banner. However, Ted Lewis, human-rights director at Global Exchange, said in an interview Tuesday that the banner was not directly financed by the organization but by a group of "local citizens, Mexican and U.S. citizens, that decided they wanted to ask the president that question."]

The incident was the first signal that Mexico's nascent grassroots peace movement had made inroads with like-minded activists in the United States and is willing to engage in political publicity stunts to get its message across to U.S. voters and policymakers. The "No + sangre" insignia was designed by a political cartoonist in Mexico and has been taken up as a rallying symbol by many different branches and organizations represented within the country's antiwar movement.

U.S. media reports from the commencement at one of the country's premiere private universities barely mentioned the stunt, but the incident was being parroted by news outlets and on social networking sites in Mexico as Calderon faces sustained pressure to change his government's strategy against the powerful drug cartels. The San Jose Mercury News reported some protesters were present outside the event, with one holding a sign that read: "Calderon stay here. Mexico is better off without you."

An estimated 38,000 people -- but possibly many more -- have been killed since Calderon dispatched the Mexican military to take on the country's main drug-trafficking organizations. Opponents of the government's campaign against the cartels say 40,000 have been killed in the past 4 1/2 years since Calderon took office.

The Mexican president exhorted Stanford graduates to stick to their ideals no matter the odds, citing his own political upbringing as a young activist for the National Action Party, or PAN, in his native state of Michoacan. Following in his father's footsteps, Calderon worked for the PAN during a period in which the PRI machine was at its strongest and most corrupt.

"You must never stop defending your ideas and dreams," said the president, whose term ends in 2012. "Do not hesitate in your efforts because in the end man's power to create is bigger than his power to destroy."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An image via Yfrog showing a small airplane carrying a banner reading "40,000 Dead! How Many More?" Credit: Twitter user Sopitas.

Man's death sparks protests among blacks in Mexico

Isaac chinedu screengrab police mexico city

Shortly after midnight on May 11 in central Mexico City, Isaac Chinedu, an immigrant from Nigeria, became involved in some kind of confrontation with a group of police officers on a dark side street. The encounter escalated, and Chinedu was severely beaten. Some minutes later, he was dead, the victim of a hit-and-run driver, authorities say.

The case of Isaac Chinedu has led to demonstrations among Mexico City's African and Afro-Mexican communities, which are laying blame on the police officers who allegedly beat the 29-year-old before he apparently ran into traffic on a busy highway. Chinedu's Mexican widow, Liduvina Castillo, claims that racial prejudice resulted in her husband's death, a charge activists here are rallying around.

"This was an act of discrimination," Castillo told a newscast. "Why? Because they detained him simply because he was black. He wasn't doing anything. Isaac was waiting for a taxi to return to his home in peace."

Prosecutors and forensic investigators said they've determined that Chinedu died of injuries suffered after he was struck by a vehicle on Calzada de Tlalpan, but said his body showed trauma from blows delivered by at least two auxiliary police officers, whose actions were captured by surveillance video. Four officers have been questioned in the incident, but there have been no arrests or charges filed.

Two other officers who may have been involved in the incident have not been identified, authorities said. The hit-and-run driver, meanwhile, remains at-large.

Continue reading »

Video: Kindergarten teacher leads children in song during shootout in Mexico

In the video, the frightened but determined voice of a schoolteacher is heard as she attempts to maintain calm among a group of kindergartners lying on the floor before her, asking them to join her in a singalong as gunfire shatters the air outside.

The teacher refers to the children as "my love," "precious" and "little ones" during the stirring clip filmed last week in the city of Monterrey, in northern Mexico. It's gone viral, igniting once more a public debate over the government's campaign against drug gangs and earning accolades for maestra Martha Rivera Alanis, reports the Associated Press.

The Nuevo Leon state government honored Rivera for "outstanding civic courage" in a ceremony today.

The 33-year-old mother of two said she was frightened, but that her "only thought was to take their minds off that noise." The song she chose during the ordeal is a Spanish-language version of a tune popularized by the children's TV program "Barney and Friends," and makes reference to chocolate droplets falling from the sky.

Rivera filmed the video during a gunfight Friday in which five people were killed at a taxi stand in La Estanzuela, a district in south Monterrey. According to a local news site, Regioblogs, the teacher posted the video to her Facebook account and then was asked permission to have it reproduced on YouTube and linked to the site. So far the original clip has garnered more than 714,000 views.

"We do drills constantly, because the area where we are is a high-risk zone," Rivera said, according to reports. The children, she added, "behaved in the way we had practiced."

Monterrey, a prosperous industrial hub, has seen a wave of drug-related violence as the Gulf and Zeta cartels battle over human- and drug-smuggling routes into the United States. The turf war has led to daylight shootouts on busy streets, attacks on bars and nightclubs, and "narco blockades" that have left residents terrified.

Shortly after the shootout, Rivera posted on Twitter: "It was very bad, my little ones in the kindergarten were very scared, and I was too! ENOUGH OF THIS!"

Other posters on blogs and social-networking sites have pointed to the clip as another example of the drug war's traumatizing effects on ordinary citizens. One man said on Twitter: "Regarding the prize for the teacher, I think that's good, but I am left asking: How many anonymous heroes do we have who are not filmed on video?"

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: YouTube via Regioblogs

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

Gender-neutral toilets divide gay community in Brazil

Brazil samba gay toilets carnaval woman madeinbrazil

Boys, Girls, and Gender-Neutral?

A prominent samba dance school in Brazil has decided to make it so, generating questions over the reaches of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people -- even in the simple act of using a toilet.

Unidos da Tijuca, one of the top samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, established separate bathrooms for gay and transgender people at new facilities it inaugurated on Jan. 8. Rio, considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, is preparing for the massive Carnival festival happening in early March.

Media reports in Brazil said that at least one other samba school in Rio already has such "gender-neutral" restrooms. Use of the new third bathrooms at Unidos da Tijuca -- which was named champion of Carnival last year -- is optional, the school maintains.

But with the annual pre-Easter party fast approaching, the new bathrooms have generated a debate among Brazil's gay community over whether third bathrooms help or hinder LGBT rights. Some argue the separate toilets create a "safe space" for gay people, while others say they resemble past practices of segregation among Brazilian blacks and whites.

Claudio Nascimento, head of the Rio state council on LGBT rights, called the toilets "Carnival apartheid" (links in Portuguese, with automated translation to English). The separate bathrooms "go beyond common sense and encourage homophobia," Nascimento said.

Karina Kara, identified as a transvestite at Unidos da Tijuca, told the Globo news network that the new toilets offer haven. "There are things that we want to do in a men's room, or female, and don't feel comfortable," Kara said. "A gay bathroom will be wonderful, because we will be able to do what we want."

Yet voices persist that the gender-neutral bathrooms amount to discrimination against gays. "This can only be a thing from strongly biased men," said Katyla Valverde, identified as a transvestite, according to O Dia.

Homophobia remains a pressing issue in Brazil, where killings of gays have shot up 62% since 2009, noted Agence France-Presse. For Globo's video report on the toilets controversy, in Portuguese, watch here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Unidos da Tijuca dancer performs during Carnival in 2010 in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: MadeinBrazil.typepad.com

Brazil mudslide survivors dig for their loved ones; 700 reported killed

Brazil dog survivors grave mudslides afp

The death toll keeps rising as the mud is cleared in Brazil. More than 700 people have been reported killed in flash floods and mudslides last week in the state of Rio de Janeiro. More than 14,000 are homeless in one of the worst natural disasters in Brazilian history, officials said.

The stories trickling out of the remote mountainous region hardest hit by the slides are both moving and alarming.

With rescue crews arriving slowly due to poor weather and rugged terrain, survivors are digging out their own dead, and bodies are decomposing rapidly, spreading the smell of death. In Teresopolis, a town hammered by the disaster, a lone dog named Leao, pictured above, has kept watch beside the muddy grave of his owner. Dramatic footage emerged this week of a man rescued after being found buried alive beneath the mud. But many of those affected have not been so fortunate.

In the video report embedded below, a man named Manuel Antonio de Oliveira digs on his own for the bodies of his children and grandson. Rescuers eventually pull out one body, but when night falls, he is left alone with the mud and ruins, until his other loved ones can be recovered the next morning.

President Dilma Rousseff, facing the first major disaster of her government, on Thursday promised swift aid for the region after observing the affected areas from a helicopter. The World Bank has pledged $485 million for rebuilding and future prevention plans.

The slides have once again brought attention to lax safety measures in the poorer areas around metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, where low-income families construct unsafe housing along steep hillsides. The government plans on beefing up a national alert system to warn of future flooding disasters.

The threat of more slides, meanwhile, remains high as summer rainfall continues.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A dog named Leao keeps watch besides the muddy grave his owner in Teresopolis, a town hard-hit by mudslides in Rio de Janeiro state. Credit: Agence France-Presse

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