Must Reads: A 'Red Era' museum, Obama and mothers of the missing


From attacks in Afghanistan to the missing in Mexico, here are five stories you shouldn't miss from the past week in global news:

China museum builder lets history speak

Obama faces new Mideast challenges in his second term

As 'insider attacks' grow, so does U.S.-Afghanistan divide

Mothers from Central America search for missing kin in Mexico

Britain's crackdown on Web comments sparks free-speech debate

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Marta Elena Perez of from Nicaragua attends Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City on Oct. 28, 2012, with a photograph of her daughter, Karla Patricia Perez, who went missing in 2005. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press

14 kidnapped Central American migrants found in Mexico


MEXICO CITY -- As a group of mothers from Honduras, Guatemala and other countries travels across Mexico in search of missing relatives, the Mexican navy on Monday announced that it had freed 14 Central Americans kidnapped by suspected drug traffickers.

Thousands of migrants from Central America go missing every year as they attempt to reach the United States through Mexico. They are often kidnapped by Mexican gangsters, held for ransom, forced to work for cartels or on marijuana farms, or killed. Many turn up in hidden mass graves.

Naval marines acting on what they described as an anonymous tip over the weekend discovered 14 migrants being held against their will in a shack in the town of Altamira, in the violent border state of Tamaulipas (link in Spanish). The state has been the scene of several massacres of Central American and Mexican migrants.

The rescued men and women looked for the most part young and skinny, judging by a video released by the navy. They told authorities they had been kidnapped in different places in Tamaulipas and were from Central America, the navy said. The navy did not offer a breakdown of nationalities and said their "migratory status" would be corroborated. They stand a good chance of being deported.

Two men who apparently were holding the migrants were arrested, the navy said.

Monday's announcement from the navy gives hope to groups searching for the missing that more  victims may still be alive.

A caravan of mothers  this month embarked on a 19-day, 14-state journey through Mexico. All 40 or so mothers are looking for children, spouses or other relatives who vanished on their way north. Through the efforts of the organizers -- they've staged a caravan every of the last several years -- and other migrant-rights activists, a few missing relatives have been found and reunited with mothers.

Human rights groups say government neglect and refusal to recognize the problem of the missing result in  families left with the task of searching on their own, sometimes going state to state to offer DNA evidence when bodies turn up.


Sifting for answers in a mass grave in Tapachula, Mexico

Two-thirds of most-wanted Mexican drug lords are in custody, dead

Mexico's drug war disappearances leave families in anguish

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Central American migrants ride on top of a train in Veracruz state, one of the precarious ways in which they try to reach the U.S., in June 2011. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency







Accused Mexican drug ring posing as media on trial in Nicaragua


MEXICO CITY — The 18 Mexicans said they were journalists from their country’s main television broadcaster, Televisa. They wore the company T-shirt, and the six vans they drove into Nicaragua bore the orange Televisa logo.

The vans contained equipment including computers and cameras. Oh, and also $9.2 million in cash hidden in secret compartments and traces of cocaine.

The mysterious caravan apparently plied the length of Central America, from Mexico to Costa Rica, in the last couple of years, never raising more than passing suspicion until Nicaraguan authorities stopped it in August at Las Manos, a Nicaraguan post on the border with Honduras.

Authorities suspect the group was part of a drug-trafficking network that moved cocaine and money throughout the region. Nicaraguan Judge Julio Cesar Arias this week ordered the group of 18 — 17 men and one woman — to stand trial in December on charges of money-laundering, drug-smuggling and organized crime.

The exposure of the 18 has proved one of the most vivid illustrations to date of the well-known but often unseen spread of Mexican drug operations deep into Central America, long a conduit and increasingly a base of storage, production and marketing for Mexican cartels.

It has also proved dicey for Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language TV network, which quickly disavowed any knowledge of the group. In a statement, the broadcaster said the people were not its employees and the vans did not belong to the company. Televisa says it will ask for an investigation and hoped to take legal action against the 18 for falsifying its logo.

Televisa got backing from Mexico’s top legal official, Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales, who said in a television interview (with Televisa, of course), that the suspects falsely used Televisa’s name as a cover for their criminal doings, part of a “machination.”

But journalists in Mexico (real ones) turned up paperwork that they say shows that the vans, or at least their license plates, were in fact registered to Televisa.

Already in progress in Managua was a separate trial of Nicaraguan businessman Henry Fariña or Fariñas, who is accused of aiding Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel move cash and coke to and from Colombia through neighboring Costa Rica. His alleged operations came to light when he survived an assassination attempt in Guatemala last year that instead killed a chance companion, renowned Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral.

It is not known if there is a connection between that case and the 18 Mexicans, who have since their arrest been reported to have made numerous trips through Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, at a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, the Mexican suspects sat rather forlornly and heard Judge Arias read the charges and set a date for the trial, Dec. 3.

The lone woman in the group, who has been identified as Raquel Alatorre, 30, of Merida, has been called the leader. She often tries to shield herself from cameras, lowering her head or hanging back in the crowd of suspects.

Nicaraguan prosecutor Rodrigo Zambrana said the suspects gave conflicting and rather improbable accounts of what they were up to when they drove into Nicaragua. At one point they said they were doing a special report on Nicaragua; another time it was a story on a Mexican accused of money-laundering in Managua, according to Zambrana. Neither scenario explains the need for an 18-member TV team, nor why they needed more than $9 million.

They were nabbed when an anonymous caller notified police that he heard the group in Honduras talking suspiciously about their mission in Nicaragua, officials have said.

And speaking of the money, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is apparently already spending it. He says it will go toward buying new patrol cars for police and building and remodeling prisons.

Ortega pretty much publicly condemned the suspects, praising in a speech earlier this month the national police for capturing a crew that, as he put it, took large amounts of drugs north and money south.

Using the Televisa vans, Ortega added, gave the 18 “impunity.” “Because,” he said, “it is not easy to detain supposed journalists to investigate them."


Panetta lifts ban on New Zealand naval ships

In Spain, an amusingly botched fresco is now a moneymaker

French missions abroad on alert after cartoons mock Muslims

— Tracy Wilkinson, with a contribution from a special correspondent in Managua, Nicaragua

Photo: Some of the Mexican suspects are escorted to a court hearing in Managua on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. Credit: Esteban Felix / Associated Press

Like 'wolves,' merciless gangs prey on migrants in Mexico

Matamoros don bartletti

MEXICO CITY -- Along Mexico's southern border region with Guatemala, ruthless criminals hunt for migrants from Central America like a "pack of wolves." Migrants victimized by gangs often end up in mass graves, while their survivors to the north or south anxiously await their arrival, or at least an identification of their dead.

On the other side of the country, on Mexico's northern border with Texas, deportees ejected across the border from the United States become automatic targets for gangs who often kidnap, torture and kill them.

"They are like the wolves and we're the sheep," said one man deported from Huntington Beach.

Two articles this week in The Times highlight the horrific realities in Mexico for the migrants who pass through the country on their way to the United States, as well as for those who are deported from there.

In the southern city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala in the state of Chiapas, Times Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson meets Argentine forensic experts as they work to identify remains found in a mass grave. The dead are presumably migrants from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, but who will ever fully know?

"Not knowing is the worst," one investigator said. "I've seen it across countries and cultures."

Mexico's government has estimated that 10,000 migrants remain unaccounted for on their journey across the country. The story notes that more young women are attempting the crossing into Mexico over the last year, and then become targets for sexual assault.

Read the entire story here.

In the northern border city of Matamoros, in Tamaulipas state, Times U.S.-Mexico border correspondent Richard Marosi meets a group of illegal immigrants recently deported to Mexico in the city across from Brownsville, Texas.

The migrants are repatriated in a controversial U.S. program that seeks to reduce the chances that they will try to cross again by sending them back into an unfamiliar region. As World Now reported a year ago, the practice puts them squarely in harm's way, with often fatal results.

Upon crossing back into Mexico, authorities warn them: "They will try to get phone numbers of your relatives in the U.S. for ransoms."

The warning offers little protection; migrants are promptly targeted by gangs. They are snatched up and robbed, extorted or killed. Some are forcibly recruited into the gangs.

"Deporting people here is like sending them into a trap … to be hunted down," a priest in Matamoros said.

Marosi relates how he is approached by a suspected gang member while reporting his story. The man tells the journalist that migrants have "nothing to fear" and that he is there to "protect" them.

Read the entire story here.


U.S. steps up deportation efforts for criminal immigrants

Does U.S. deportation program put migrants in harm's way?

Mexico says leader in kidnapping, killing of 72 migrants arrested

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Deportees carry personal items in boxes provided by U.S. authorities and file across the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico. They will soon be warned by Grupo Beta, the Mexican migrant safety force, about dangers they are about to face. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

U.S. Vice President Biden in Mexico says 'no' to drug legalization


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on a swing through Mexico and Central America, on Monday adamantly rejected any move toward legalizing drugs.

Biden's comments to reporters came as a number of Latin American leaders have begun to suggest decriminalization as a way to reduce deadly violence engulfing parts of the region.

"It is totally legitimate for this to be raised," Biden said. "It warrants discussion. It is worth debating to lay to rest some of the myths."

He said that ultimately, legalization creates more problems than it solves, including the bureaucratic costs of regulating and distributing drugs plus the damage to public health from consumption and addiction.

Biden also met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and with the three candidates who are competing to replace him in July 1 elections. Biden said he was confident each of the three would continue a close working relationship with Washington.

The vice president travels on to Honduras where on Tuesday he will sit down with Central American leaders to discuss drug trafficking and other security issues.


Red Cross still blocked from entering traumatized Syrian area

Drug allegations may hamper former Mexico ruling party's return

Activists: Most trash picked from Mexican beach is from elsewhere 

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, greets Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City. Credit: Mexican government via European Pressphoto Agency


Relatives protest outside site of Mexico prison break

Apodaca mexico prison

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Fires and new disturbances were reported inside and outside the Apodaca prison in northern Mexico, site of a massacre and prison break on Sunday that left 44 people dead and added to an international outcry over prison conditions in Latin America.

Relatives of inmates clashed with authorities outside the prison late Tuesday, while fires were set by inmates inside after word spread of the protest, reports said. Within hours, authorities reported that they had brought the situation under control.

The disturbances began after authorities announced the transfer of some inmates out of Apodaca. The prison is located outside of the industrial city of Monterrey in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

The killings in Apocada comes after more than 350 trapped inmates died last week in a fire in a severely overcrowded prison in Honduras. A recent report on the Honduran prison system painted a bleak picture of "unhealthy" and "collapsed" facilities that operate as "universities of crime."

The Apodaca incident is believed to have been an operation carried out by the Zetas crime cartel with the help of corrupt prison officials, in which 30 Zetas members escaped and killed dozens of members of the rival Gulf cartel.


Honduras report bolsters criticism of prison system

Mexico's defense secretary acknowledges errors in drug war

Prison brawl in Mexico was cover for jail break, authorities say

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Relatives of inmates at the Apodaca prison protest outside the prison gates. Credit: Miguel Sierra / EPA


Prison brawl in Mexico was cover for jail break, authorities say


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- A prison riot that left 44 inmates beaten or knifed to death served as cover for a massive jail break by members of Mexico’s deadliest criminal gang, the Zetas, authorities said Monday.

Thirty Zeta members escaped from the maximum-security Apodaca prison in northern Mexico during Sunday’s brawl -- with apparent complicity of guards and possibly other top prison officials, the authorities said.

The prison warden, three other penitentiary officials and 18 guards have been suspended and detained for questioning, said Rodrigo Medina, governor of the state of Nuevo Leon, where Apodaca is located (link in Spanish).

“We can say without a doubt that this was premeditated and planned,” Medina said in a news conference, where he offered a nearly $800,000 reward for information leading to the recapture of the escapees.

“This isn't a thing where, in the middle of a riot, it occurred to these people to escape,” Medina said. “There was a plan, which undoubtedly relied on the complicity of some officials.”

The deadly violence and the escape underscored the abysmal condition of Mexican prisons, woefully overcrowded, rife with corruption and riddled by violence. While such troubles plague penal systems throughout Latin America, the problems are especially acute in Mexico, where a military crackdown on drug cartels has helped fill cells often to more than double capacity.


At least 44 killed in Mexican prison riot

Honduras report bolsters criticism of prison system

Mexico's defense secretary acknowledges errors in drug war

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Ambulances carry bodies from Apodaca prison, where 44 people died Sunday during a riot and jail break. Credit: Miguel Sierra / EPA


At least 44 killed in Mexican prison riot

Prisonriot2 REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Dozens of people were killed in a riot inside a Mexican prison Sunday, the latest lethal incident in Latin America's overcrowded, poorly maintained jails (link in Spanish).

By early afternoon, the number of dead at the prison outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey had climbed to 44 and might yet rise, officials said (link in Spanish). Public security authorities in Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located, said inmates rioted in one cellblock about 2 a.m. and the violence spread to a second block.

Initial reports blamed the violence on efforts to transfer some inmates to another facility elsewhere in the country. There were conflicting reports about whether guards were taken hostage and if fires broke out in some of the cells. 

Jorge Domene, the state's public security spokesman, said authorities had regained control of the institution. He said most of the prisoners were incarcerated on drug-trafficking charges and related crimes.

All the dead were killed by knives, other sharp instruments, clubs or stones, Domene said.

Last week, more than 350 people were killed in an overcrowded prison in Comayagua, Honduras; it was the deadliest prison fire anywhere in modern history and underscored deteriorating conditions in jails  throughout Latin America.

Mexico's raging drug war, which long ago pushed violence deep into Central America, is helping to fill prisons in many cities at more than twice the capacity.

In Sunday's incident, the prison at a town called Apodaca, about 20 miles from Monterrey, was reportedly built to hold 1,500 inmates but had a population of 3,000.


Mexico to U.S.: 'No more weapons!'

Honduras report bolsters criticism of prison system

Immigration, deportation -- and no right to return?

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Relatives of inmates at a prison near the northern Mexico city of Monterrey attempt to break through a security fence in a desperate attempt to get information about rioting that killed several dozen inmates Sunday. Credit: Julio Cesar Aguilar / AFP/Getty Images

Must Reads: Deadly fire and a political star who lived in a cave

Awaiting word after Honduras prison fire

From a horrific prison fire in Honduras to a Chinese political star who lived nearly seven years in a cave, here are five stories not to miss from this week:

Honduras' deadly prison fire stirs furor

China political star Xi Jinping a study in contrasts

Syrian opposition struggles to gain traction in Aleppo

In South Sudan, oil shutoff is a matter of national pride

Greece and Germany's he said/she said over debt crisis

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Nora Meraz stands behind a fence outside the morgue as she waits for information about her relative in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Thursday. Family members came to the morgue from Comayagua, where a prison fire killed more than 350 inmates. Credit: Fernando Antonio / Associated Press

Inmate reportedly set deadly Honduras prison fire

Honduran officials say the prison fire that killed at least 272 inmates was apparently started by an inmate who set fire to his mattress
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Honduran officials say the prison fire that killed at least 272 inmates was apparently started by an inmate who set fire to his mattress.

Danilo Orellana, head of the Honduran prison system, said survivors of the blaze reported that a fellow inmate set fire to his bedding and shouted, "We will all die in here," the Associated Press reported.

Orellana did not identify the man or his apparent motive.

Honduran authorities say they believe the death toll in the fire is now above 300, though they had confirmed only 272 deaths. The country's human-rights commissioner, Ramon Custodio, said on Honduran radio that 357 people remained unaccounted for.

The blaze broke out late Tuesday night at the federal prison in Comayagua, about 90 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa. Many trapped inmates burned to death or were asphyxiated in their cells. Authorities said rescuers were unable to find guards who had keys to the cells.

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