My latest for VICE News. In this documentary, I served as both producer and correspondent. Thanks to my crew, Brooke, Phoebe, and Mack.
My latest for VICE News. In this documentary, I served as both producer and correspondent. Thanks to my crew, Brooke, Phoebe, and Mack.
Some of the work produced out of our office in Mexico City shows up on this compilation of highlights from VICE News' year.
Above, our VICE News documentary produced by the Mexico bureau, regarding the case of Alberto Nisman, the federal prosecutor who was investigating the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires.
Our crew spent a week in BA investigating this case, with local producer Gaston Cavanagh. It was one of the more complex stories I've had to cover, because every time we reached what seemed like a reasonable conclusion about something, the next turn, the next interview, completely flipped it.
The assignment was also challenging because it dealt with the thorny themes of anti-Semitism, terrorism, the Kirchners, the opposition in Argentina (the left calls them "the right," but they call themselves "liberal"), and Iran. You decide where you stand on all that.
* With my homie Franco, an hincha for club Newell's Old Boys in Rosario, Argentina, May 2014. Photo by producer Raymundo Perez-Arellano.
There is no use apologizing. Intersections, like a lot of blogs that started in this long-forgotten blog big bang of 2005-2006, went into posting decline after the realization that it was impossible for me to keep up. Not while at the same time taking on a reporting and writing job with extremely demanding responsibilities and expectations.
When I was in the DF bureau of the LA Times, at least I managed to re-post my stories, most of the time. Since 2013, this has also become functionally impossible. Work just went from crazy to crazier.
After a year as editor of VICE México, in June of 2014, my boss asked me to step in and become Mexico bureau chief of VICE News. It was the kind of job I had never really thought about doing but at the same time knew I was capable of doing, so I said yes. With this, my year, and my life, changed.
By then, early summer, our office's Munchies Guide to Oaxaca (which we actually recorded in November 2013, produced by Santiago Fábregas and shot by Guillermo Alvarez), was finally live and cookin'. Munchies had also just posted my profile on food queen Diana Kennedy.
I was on my way to being a food host for VICE, and was still editing the Mexican edition of the print magazine at the time.
But after seeing and hearing good responses to my first hosting gig for VICE with the Oaxaca guía, the chiefs wanted to try me out on a serious news assignment. Right away, they sent me and a crew to Rosario, to investigate the drug war happening on the streets of an important port city in Argentina.
From there, other assignments in the field followed. I said "Yes" to whatever was asked of me — including yes to a trip that was decided on and carried out within hours of arriving to the office for a normal work day — dealing with the challenges as best I could, recognizing and representing, in a corner of my mind and in my own little way, for my beloved brown America.
During all this, I've had to keep up my main, most important duties, with a teensy staff: editing, translating, fact-checking, and publishing original news stories and features from across Latin America. The bureau staff and I have spent long hours working with reporters filing from Santiago to Tijuana, often under breaking-news pressure, just everyday hustling, getting stories up onto the VICE News site.
The stresses in 2014 were the steepest I've confronted since the start of my career. Then, in late September, Ayotzinapa happened. And the work got even more intense.
But I'm not gonna complain. I'm only looking forward. This year I plan on hosting more for VICE News in my role in the bureau, and I also hope to squeeze in some fresh field assignments with Munchies. There's more in store, and I want to thank all my readers and my community for staying strong with me and hanging on through all the madness and bullshit out there.
So, below, some highlights from my first seven months at VICE News. For all the stories I've written or co-written for News, click here. I'll have a post later — I hope! — all about our Ayotzinapa coverage.
The Rosario documentary I mentioned. Beautiful city, fucked-up story. This documentary, fixed locally by Gaston Cavanagh, made some waves among locals in Rosario and was cited in numerous subsequent news reports in the Argentine press.
Stopping over in Buenos Aires, we decided to check out the issue of paco, the BA streets version of crack, and a symptom of the economic malaise that has plagued the country since 2001.
A quick Munchies interlude in here, a tour of three classic Mexico City fondas. Mmmmmmm, ¿A que hora es la comida?
On September 11, we landed in Chile, to cover the demonstrations and street protests tied to the anniversary of the 1973 coup that brought down socialist president Salvador Allende and initiated the military dictatorship. Three days earlier, a bomb went off in a Santiago subway station.
At the Tolemaida military base, in Melgar, Colombia, our crew covered the 2014 Fuerzas Comando competition, a meet-and-greet for elite special ops teams from across Latin America. This documentary was produced as part of the VICE News "War Games" series.
This is the full-length version of our documentary on the horrible case of the missing students in Guerrero, Mexico. All the credit in the world for this work is to be shared with the committed and talented producers, fixers, photographers, editors, and administrators at the VICE México headquarters in Mexico City, and in particular, Rafael Castillo, Hans-Máximo Musielik, and Melissa del Pozo.
We really put in as a team the toughest hours and biggest risks many of us had ever seen in Mexico.
Me and the VICE News crew were also in Peru in late 2014, for a documentary that is coming up early this year. But that's another story ... 2K15 has begun. Stay tuned, and as always ... More soon.
** Originally published at VICE.com and VICE News, on Feb. 24, 2014.
“I’m a farmer.”
So said Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán when the press asked him what he did for a living on June 10, 1993, following his arrest and extradition to Mexico after years on the run. In a way, no truer words have been spoken in the history of the country’s bizarre and bloody drug war.
Guzmán was indeed a kind of “farmer.” The poppy and marijuana crops under his control were the basis of a multibillion-dollar transnational trafficking empire that would eventually make him one of the richest and most wanted men in the world.
He was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison, but in 2001 he managed to escape, cartoonishly, in a laundry cart. Guzmán expanded his reach by trafficking marijuana, heroin, and cocaine into the United States, Europe, and Australia. He is said to exert control over most of western Mexico, parts of Guatemala, and trafficking ports in West Africa. While his nickname means “Shorty,” there’s nothing diminutive about El Chapo’s stature in the illicit drug world. Forbeshas regularly named him in its lists of richest and “most powerful” people.
Guzmán’s prosperous stint as a fugitive came to an end again on Saturday morning, following an epic 13-year manhunt that left a trail of blood and tragedy as Sinaloa, his cartel, ruthlessly fought off Mexico's security forces on one front and combated rival cartels for control of the country’s lucrative drug trade on another.
Shortly before 7 AM, Mexican authorities captured Guzmán in a condominium buildingoverlooking the water in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlán, in Sinaloa. No shots were fired in the raid, which was assisted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Marshals Service, and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Condo 401 looks plain, almost shabby, in photos taken after the raid that led to Guzmán’s capture.
Mexican authorities addressed the media on February 22.
Guzmán was flown to Mexico City. In the afternoon, after Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam delivered a brief statement on the tarmac of the international airport, uniformed soldiers wearing face masks led the drug lord from a navy hangar to a federal police helicopter.
Guzmán wore dark jeans, a pale long-sleeved shirt, and a formidable mustache. The kingpin was briefly seen hunched over and wearing handcuffs. He didn’t take questions and wasn’t heard speaking before the helicopter swiftly carried him away to the Altiplano federal prison. (The Justice Department announced on Sunday that it will seek Guzmán’s extradition to the US.)
Mexican authorities also took no questions; the dais and flag that were used for their statements were packed up within seconds of the helicopter’s departure.
Mexicans were left to absorb the fall of a mythic figure in the country's recent history. Many wondered what would come next. Despite recent drug-liberalization initiatives within the United States—the leading drug-consuming nation in the world—Mexico’s drug war has shown no signs of abating.
Guzmán’s role in the US-Mexico drug trade is a mystery, colored by allegations that he or his operatives maintain contact with US and Mexican authorities, perhaps as protected informants.
Jesús Vicente Zambada, a major Sinaloa cartel operative who was extradited to Chicago to face trafficking charges, has claimed in court that US agents in Mexico gave him and other cartel members immunity in exchange for information about rival cartels, particularly the bloodthirsty Zetas. US prosecutors insist that he had no such deal with federal agents. (Zambada is still awaiting trial.)
While associates and relatives of Guzmán have been arrested or killed in shoot-outs in recent years—among those killed was Guzmán's 22-year-old son, Édgar, in 2008—others in his inner circle have been known to move about on either side of the border.
In the summer of 2011, Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel, gave birth to twin girls at a hospital in Los Angeles County. Guzmán married the former beauty queen in a extravagant party in 2007, when she was only 18. Federal agents monitored Coronel, a US citizen, while she was in California. Because there were no charges against her, she freely returned to Mexico with her children.
Guzmán was born in 1957 in a village called La Tuna, located in the Sinaloa municipality of Badiraguato—one of the poorest counties in all of Mexico. His father was a gomero, or poppy farmer, but Guzmán grew up mostly poor and neglected, and eager to prove himself.
Badiraguato is considered the gateway to the "Golden Triangle," the rough and remote poppy- and cannabis-growing region of the Sierra Madre mountain range that runs down western Mexico, dominating Sinaloa and neighboring Durango and Chihuahua. Some of the biggest names in Mexico’s narcotics industry were also born in Badiraguato, including Rafael Caro Quintero, an old-school drug lord who was released from prison on a technicality last August, after 28 years behind bars.
According to the book The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith, Guzmán got started in the drug industry as a lieutenant to Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, considered the godfather of Mexico’s cocaine shipping trade, in what was then known as the Guadalajara cartel. After Félix Gallardo’s capture in 1989, Guzmán and his group within the Sinaloa cartel effectively took over and began expanding, killing, or disappearing anyone who stood in their way. By 1993, when Guzmán survived an assassination attempt in Guadalajara that left an archbishop dead, El Chapo’s legend already loomed large in Mexico.
Pressure began mounting on the government to score a victory against the drug traffickers, which led to Guzmán’s capture in the summer of 1993 by Guatemalan authorities and his extradition to Mexico. Guzmán reportedly enjoyed a lavish lifestyle within the maximum-security prison Puente Grande. According to a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile, he was so well-pampered during his stint in the pit that his set-up rivaled the comforts of his beachside condo in Mazatlán. He had a television and a cellphone to direct his drug empire, selected meals from a menu, smuggled plenty of contraband, and received visits from cartel members and prostitutes. He kept a supply of Viagra on hand.
Guzmán’s escape coincided with the transition to a multi-party democracy after the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was interrupted by the election of President Vicente Fox, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Fox took office in December 2000 as the first non-PRI president in Mexico’s post-Revolutionary history. Guzmán escaped from Puente Grande a month later.
The country’s bitterly contested 2006 presidential election resulted in a second presidential term for PAN under Felipe Calderón. Immediately after taking office, Calderón launched a military campaign against drug cartels in his home state of Michoacán. The new president even made an appearance in public wearing military fatigues.
Troops rolled into cities and towns within cartel territories, sparking warfare in major cities like Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Morelia, Acapulco, and Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital.
The six years of Calderón’s presidential term proved to be the bloodiest period in Mexico’s history since its revolution, more than a century before. At least 70,000 people were killed in drug violence during that time, and some 26,000 people went missing. Only a small fraction of these cases will ever be solved. Most of these atrocities occurred because of a government-approved, prohibitionist drug war in which Guzmán was arguably the most symbolic figure.
Sightings of Guzmán abounded for the next several years. He was said to be in Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, and even the US. Narcocorridos about his exploits could be heard in nightclubs, on YouTube, and over the airwaves in northern Mexico (until authorities banned their broadcast). When Guzmán dined out, he would pay the tabs of the other diners. It seemed for a while that El Chapo was everywhere except prison.
In 2009, a Catholic archbishop in the state of Durango said that Guzmán was living just up the road from a town called Guanacevi. “Everyone knows it, except the authorities,” he said.
The Sinaloa cartel made strategic decisions to combat its rivals—the Gulf cartel, the Zetas, and the Beltran Leyva gang—across Mexico. Violence erupted in Guerrero, Veracruz, and Michoacán, with Mexico’s security forces killing and capturing various capos.
Ciudad Juárez saw the worst of the warfare by far. An estimated 11,000 people were killed in there between 2007 and 2012. Over the same span, more than 7,000 civilian complaints of military abuses were registered with the country’s National Human Rights Commission.
In the course of the conflict, the US played an unprecedented role in Mexican law enforcement, making it seem almost as though the US agents operating in Mexico were practically in control of the push to find and capture Guzmán and others. Calderón left office in December 2012 and turned over power to Enrique Peña Nieto, returning the PRI to the presidency and introducing uncertainty about the direction of the fight against cartels.
With Guzmán’s capture, there’s no telling what will happen next. History has shown that the capture of top capos in Mexico often precipitates a violent struggle among splintering forces to fill the power vacuum. The leadership of the Sinaloa cartel is said to have shifted to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Jesús Vicente's father, who is believed to be Guzmán’s second-in-command. But reports have also noted that Dámaso López, a young, flashy capo known as “El Mini Lic,” could position himself strongly within the top ranks of the Sinaloa cartel in Guzmán’s absence.
At the same time, rival cartels could detect an opening in Guzmán’s arrest and seek to regain ground that they have lost to the Sinaloa cartel in recent years. This would be a very dark turn of events.
** Originally published at VICE México:
Este texto, originalmente escrito en inglés y con el título de “Reign Over Me” fue publicado en el número especial sobre la Ciudad de México de la revista culinaria neoyokina, Swallow Magazine. Swallow presentó el número en el DF a finales de junio de este año. Esta traducción se publica cortesía de los editores de Swallow.
Me gusta pasar mis tardes de domingo en el centro de la Ciudad de México. Siento una fascinación particular por los barrios repletos de Tepito y la Lagunilla, domingueando por los tianguis que operan desde antes de la llegada de los españoles.
Voy en busca de las últimas películas de acción en formato pirata de alta calidad. O algo de los puestos de “películas de arte”. Discos con 60 mp3s, cada uno a diez pesos, disponibles en cantidades industriales a cada cuadra. Camisetas de calidad. Jeans. Tenis. Porno. El paraíso de los compradores.
Siempre hay jale en el centro. Todos tienen su jale. El chico que trabaja en el puesto reparando teléfonos y el tipo que maneja el camión destartalado. El que reparte tarjetas para el table y la anciana que mira hacia abajo desde su balcón. Los franeleros apropiándose de lugares de estacionamiento que no les pertenecen. Los policías.
Durante mi primera estancia en el centro, recuerdo que me sentía rodeado por el segmento social más honesto de la ciudad.
Tepito es uno de los barrios más antiguos y con más historia del DF. Entre los hijos nativos están Raúl Macías, el boxeador que acuñara la humilde frase “Todo se lo debo a mi manager y a la Virgencita de Guadalupe”. Jugadores de futbol como Cuauhtémoc Blanco. El Tirantes, ese bailarín de calle trajeado con un bigote espeso y tirantes brillantes que sabe bailar swing, mambo y chachachá mejor que cualquiera en la ciudad. Y no olvidemos a Doña Queta, que mantiene el altar local a la Santa Muerte.
Tepito es ilegal, inseguro y prácticamente autónomo. Todos los días de la semana, excepto los martes, funge como un mercadillo al aire libre, repleto de importaciones ilegales de todo tipo, un lugar donde se pierde la línea entre los artículos de marca y sus falsificaciones. Como dice el más querido refrán del barrio: “Todo está a la venta menos la dignidad”.
Los domingos por la mañana reviso mis bolsillos para evaluar cuánto efectivo me queda después de salir de fiesta viernes y sábado por la noche. Me subo al metro, transbordo en Garibaldi, y bajo una parada después hasta la Lagunilla, o dos más hasta Tepito, la estación que porta un guante del boxeador como su glifo oficial. Las escaleras que bajan a la estación están repletas de puestos; el mercado prácticamente se desborda hacia el subsuelo. Corro hacia arriba, un poco de sudor precompras en la frente, para adentrarme en el barrio bravo.
Cuando llega la hora de comer, me pongo mi cara seria y me abro camino a través de las filas de puestos callejeros, rumbo al oeste hasta un puesto en Matamoros, entre dos locales de DVD. El viejo encargado de la parrilla siempre me mira con los ojos entrecerrados y el ceño fruncido, como si emitiera un mal olor que sólo él puede oler. No importa, aquí se prepara un excelente taco. Bistec, suadero, longaniza, chuleta y tortas de obispo. La torta de obispo es un pedazo de carne de cerdo con hierbas y nueces machacadas adentro, es un plato tradicional de Toluca. Hasta donde tengo entendido, este puesto es uno de los pocos lugares en la capital donde se sirve.
El viejo domina el arte del taco y emplea una serie de estrategias impresionantes que sólo puedo describir como taquear al estilo DF. Fríe las papas en la misma grasa donde se cocina la carne, y luego le echa un puñado de ellas en cada taco. Tiene un enorme recipiente con frijoles de la olla en la mesa para que el cliente complemente su taco al gusto. El caldo de los frijoles se escurre por tu taco, empapando la doble tortilla. Por si fuera poco, puedes acompañar tu taco con una de dos salsas: una roja aceitosa y oscura, con abundantes semillas de chile, o una verde que por alguna razón parece amenazante. Pido tacos de todo tipo, pero invariablemente, siempre termino con "una de obispo".
Entre mordidas, mastico una hoja de pápalo cruda de una cubeta sobre la mesa. Sirve para borrar el paladar y separar los sabores. Me siento en silencio a comer, junto a una familia de extraños que salen a pasear en domingo o junto a un vendedor tatuado con una gorra. El viejo simplemente gruñe cuando llega la hora de pasarle mis monedas. No hay problema. Gracias, murmuro. Ya comí.
Las heridas de mi cruda cósmica comienzan a sanar. La cerveza también ayuda.
* Foto vía.
** Originally published at VICE México:
El domingo 7 de julio, los principales partidos políticos de México se pelearon alcaldías, congresos locales y la gobernatura de Baja California, en las primeras elecciones de intermedio durante el gobierno priista de Enrique Peña Nieto. Las elecciones, que se realizaron en 14 estados, estuvieron repletas de acusaciones, ataques, secuestros, levantones, pleitos y hasta muertos; la misma cochinada de siempre.
Lo más visto de esta jornada electoral se presentó en el estado de Veracruz, dominio de impunidad del cacique-rey priista Javier Duarte, y en Baja California, donde el PAN tuvo que unirse con el PRD para intentar defender el primer estado que dio a la alternancia (en 1989) contra una ofensa del “nuevo PRI.”
Allí en la línea, parece que el conteo del PREP brevemente “falló”, igual que en Veracruz. Pero para el lunes, el PAN se quedó con Baja California en las manos. Y en Veracruz, pues lo mismo de siempre, pero dentro de una clima de violencia e impunidad, con mucho más abstencionismo.
Estaba podrido el asunto desde mucho antes.
Por lo menos dos candidatos fueron asesinados durante la campaña (véase abajo), y unos cuatro dirigentes o militantes locales también murieron por violencia. El viernes antes del voto, el líder nacional del PRD, Jesús Zambrano, acusó que líderes de varias campañas locales fueron levantados, atacados o desaparecidos en cuatro lugares: Rosario, Sinaloa; Chalma, Veracruz (donde la caravana de un candidato fue atacada); y en Guadalupe y Jerez, Zacatecas.
* Foto de Cuartoscuro, vía.
Día de sufragio feo
En Tijuana, una bomba molotov fue lanzada a la casa de campaña de la candidata priista a regidora, Leticia Castañeda. En Tantoyuca, Veracruz, el Partido Verde acusó encontrar 24 bombas molotov (según del PAN) en un auto.
En Chihuahua, Chihuahua, el presidente nacional del PAN, Gustavo Madero, no pudo votar en su casilla, conocida como fuertemente panista, porque amaneció el lugar con un candado y un letrero dirigiendo la reubicación de la casilla a una dirección falsa. “Con esta sola acción pueden quitarnos más de 500 votos”, Madero dijo en Twitter.
El instituto electoral de Oaxaca informó que un grupo robó y quemó paquetes electorales en el municipio de Santo Domingo Petapa, del Istmo. En la capital del estado, maestros de la Sección 22 de la SNTE tomaron radiodifusoras como parte de su boicot a los comicios.
Hubo balazos en una casilla en Culiacán. Y luego en Cancún, autoridades de Quintana Roo detuvieron a 45 integrantes de un supuesto “grupo de choque” ligado con el PRI local. Finalmente, el PAN en Durango acusó que 12 operadores fueron detenidos por autoridades a lo largo del día, en diversos lugares.
* Jaime Orozco Madrigal, foto vía.
Los muertos de estas elecciones
El día de domingo amaneció con el reporte de balazos contra una casa de campaña del PRI en Coxquihui, Veracruz, incidente que dejó un muerto. Luego, una dirigente panista dijo que hubo haber sido “fuego amigo”. Y bueno, en ese mismo municipio, el 17 de junio, un pleito entre gente de estos dos partidos ya había dejando un muerto.
En el municipio de Mecayapan, también en Veracruz, un joven perredista de 17 años fue apuñalado mientras grababa afuera de una casa de campaña del PRI, donde supuestamente estaban repartiendo despensas a cambio de votos. El asesino de Feliciano Castillo Martínez fue identificado como Sofía Cruz Hernández, quien posteriormente fue detenida.
Durante esta elección de 2013 fueron asesinados dos candidatos: uno del PRI, en Chihuahua, y uno de Movimiento Ciudadano, en Durango.
El 12 de junio, Jaime Orozco Madrigal, el candidato priista para la alcaldía de Guadalupe y Calvo, fue encontrado al lado de un cerro con impactos de bala después de haber sido levantado un par de día antes.
Seis días antes de las elecciones, el 1 de julio, José Ricardo Zamudio, candidato de MC en San Dimas, Durango, fue asesinado a disparos y hallado por militares. Y no es todo, pues en febrero un precandidato del PRI en Lerdo, Durango, fue secuestrado y encontrado muerto casi un mes después.
¿Quién ganó? ¿Quién perdió? No lo tengo claro. En un ambiente de violencia, valeverguismo y abstencionismo crónico, los únicos que parecen ganar son los demonios y la clase política.
Este lunes, el secretario de Gobernación, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, dijo en su Twitter: “Buenos días, que sea una semana exitosa para todos”. No hubo ninguna reflexión o anuncio respeto a las elecciones o sus tantas víctimas.
Por su parte, el presidente Peña Nieto no tuvo nada importante que anunciar hoy por la mañana. Todo bien.
** Originally published at VICE México, June 28, 2013:
Es un viernes lluvioso de tianguis, los morros están saliendo de sus clases, y la lona sigue colgada entre un comedor y una tienda, con un mensaje muy claro: “SI TE AGARRAMOS ROBANDO, TE LINCHAMOS”.
Se ven por varias calles de este pueblo en la Delegación Cuajimalpa del Distrito Federal, lonas que representan una hartazgo total de los pobladores de San Mateo Tlatenango contra una ola de robos y asaltos que se han incrementado, aseguran, desde que la policía de la Ciudad de México les retiró elementos de vigilancia por esa siempre misteriosa explicación llamada “falta de recursos.”
El pueblo de San Mateo está a menos que un kilómetro de las torres residenciales más lujosas de la zona corporativa de Santa Fe. Para llegar allí desde el suelo urbano del valle, subes a Santa Fe y pasas el CityMarket recién hecho, el Superama enorme, y la vueltita escondida que lleva al túnel de seguridad del Club de Golf Santa Fe. Ahí, subes por un camino de dos carriles que va escalando las montañas del poniente del DF hasta cruzar al Estado de México.
Las lonas se ven por todos lados en el pueblo, y hasta en la antigua parroquia se dice que el padre busca tener la suya también, para colgarla de unos muros que en la lógica religiosa le pertenecen a Dios. Quizá en estados como Michoacán o Guerrero serán conocidos o hasta esperados este tipos de mensajes, ¿pero dentro de la ciudad? ¿Qué pasa?
** Originally published May 17 at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Same-sex marriage is legal in this city. Gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and the government touts tolerance and respect for "sexual diversity" in messages posted on subway platforms and bus billboards.
Yet, according to Jonathan Zamora, a 31-year-old psychologist, the advancement of gay rights in Mexico's capital in recent years conceals an ugly, persistent problem: unchecked discrimination and violence in what is, on paper at least, one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.
Early on March 15, Zamora alleges, he was detained while walking home by police who beat and jailed him for hours.
Zamora says he was not drinking in public, was fully clothed and only blocks from his door after a night out with friends. When he asked officers why he was stopped, Zamora says one of them told him it was for being gay, using a Mexican slur for homosexuals.
When Zamora reached his home later that afternoon -- bruised and without his belongings, which he said were confiscated -- he posted photos of his injuries online. Thus, a campaign began targeting what gay rights activists call police discrimination in Mexico City, as well as reports of homophobic threats and violence on the streets.
"I thought my case was isolated, but we know it's not," Zamora said in a recent interview at a cafe in Mexico City's refurbished historic center. "There are so many other cases like mine, and they keep coming to me .... Some [people] have even lost their lives."
The spokesman's office for Mexico City's police department declined to answer questions about Zamora's case. But city prosecutors said they were aware of the case and that an investigation was underway.
On Friday, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera was taking part in an event to roll out new protocols for the police that are intended to ensure that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are respected.
Zamora's complaint is one of numerous reported incidents of violence or discrimination against the gay community in Mexico City in recent months.
In mid-January, gunmen held up an upscale men's bathhouse near the ritzy Polanco district. Men identifying themselves online as customers of the bathhouse later complained of abuse at the hands of police who responded.
At least three men have been reported killed or found dead after confrontations near gay bars since the start of the year, according to police reports.
Zamora, a native of a middle-class suburb northwest of Mexico City, offered chilling details of his detention. He said the officers who stopped him drove around aimlessly for at least an hour before delivering him to a jail cell. At one point, Zamora alleges, one of the officers said he could be set free if he performed oral sex on them.
Hours later, alone in a cell, Zamora said he began kicking a door to demand his release. He still hadn't been told what crime led to his detention, he said, and hadn't been permitted to make a phone call.
He claimed four officers entered his cell and proceeded to punch and kick him. Zamora said he was then taken to a hospital, examined, returned to a police station and let go, ending an ordeal that lasted about eight hours.
"In my case, it wasn't just about a lack of training, it was a lack of everything," he said. "How can you hire people who are aggressive, violent, who don't behave like community?"
New police protocols published Thursday instruct officers to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people "with respect for human rights" and to respect their "gender identity." They also prohibit the use of insulting language or degrading comments.
"First, the police have to recognize that we're people," said Jaime Lopez Vela, a longtime gay rights activist who helped draft the new rules. "We've been talking about this for years. It's been on the agenda, and sadly, it's been expedited by the recent aggressions."
More than two months after his arrest, Zamora says he is still waiting for justice. The officers who allegedly detained and beat him have been identified, but no charges or disciplinary measures have been announced. Meanwhile, he's turned to Facebook, Twitter and Change.org to keep the public’s eye on his case.
"Any moment that your dignity, your values, your rights are broken, you must raise your voice," Zamora said.
** Originally published in the April 20, 2013 print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- Contradictory court judgments in the war crimes trial of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt this week set off protests in Guatemala City and prompted rebukes from human rights organizations around the world.
On Friday, Judge Jazmin Barrios, who is presiding over Rios Montt's genocide trial in Guatemala's capital, called court to order despite another judge's ruling a day earlier granting an appeal by the defense to annul the case based on a technicality. The Thursday ruling was "illegal," Barrios said.
Rios Montt's defense did not show up in court Friday, however, leaving the 86-year-old former military ruler alone at the defense table.
Without counsel for the defendants, the trial was suspended, prompting crowds to rally in protest.
The developments came after nearly a month of wrenching courtroom testimony from survivors of a counterinsurgency campaign that brutally targeted members of the Ixil Maya minority in 1982 and 1983, considered the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 36-year civil war.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt and his former military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, ordered a campaign to wipe out the Ixil Maya, including women, children, and elderly adults. Truth commission reports have found that military commanders believed Marxist guerrillas had indoctrinated the community, making them enemies.
As Barrios shut down the trial Friday, cries of "justice!" erupted in the courtroom where Rios Montt still sat. Later, Ixil witnesses and supporters who had traveled to the capital from their region of Quiche marched from one justice building to the other, many chanting "Genocide did happen."
The chants were a direct response to a media campaign launched this week by Guatemala's right-wing, denying that an effort to wipe out an ethnic minority had occurred during Central America's bloodiest war.
Many young Ixil, including those born after the massacres, held up signs that read in Spanish, "We youth have a right to know the truth," American blogger Xeni Jardin wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said they would file appeals, and they were reportedly forming a separate procedural case against Carol Patricia Flores, the judge who annulled the trial Thursday.
The court decisions pushed the legal drama into murky political territory and complicated the Rios Montt trial for Guatemala's judiciary. Guatemala's current president, Otto Perez Molina, was implicated by a witness this month in the executions of Ixil Maya villagers.
"This is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war, who have been waiting for more than 30 years for justice to be done and for remedies," United Nations human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Friday in Geneva.
In New York, leading human rights groups also denounced the Thursday ruling and called for Guatemala's highest court to reverse it and allow the Rios Montt trial to resume.
"For years, this case and ones like it have been delayed by dilatory maneuvers and acts of intimidation against victims and justice officials alike," said Reed Brody, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch. "This hyper-technical decision is deeply troubling and should be reversed immediately so that the trial can continue."
Manolo Vela, a Guatemalan academic who served as a government investigator in the successful 2011 prosecution of lower-ranking military officers for the Dos Erres massacre of 1982, said the sudden turn of events suggests other forces might be at play.
"What's clear is that despite certain advancements in the justice system, there are still slits, openings, through which corruption or the interests of the powerful can infiltrate," said Vela, a social sciences professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Barrios said Guatemala's Constitutional Court has three days to respond to petitions to reverse the annulment or prosecutors will have to restart their case from the beginning.
* Photo: Ixiles demonstrate against the court rulings in Guatemala City, via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now and in the print edition of the April 19, 2103 Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- On the first day of trial, a witness named Bernardo Bernal recounted how, as a 9-year-old in the spring of 1983, he hid in a stream and watched Guatemalan soldiers kill his parents and two younger brothers.
On the second day of testimony in Guatemala City, a man named Pedro Chavez Brito described how soldiers found him and his siblings hiding in a traditional sauna in their village on Nov. 4, 1982. His sister was carrying a newborn.
"'You are a guerrilla, you gave food to the guerrillas,' they said to my sister," the witness said, according to an unofficial transcript of the genocide case in Guatemala. Soldiers tied his sister to the stairs of the house and set fire to it, killing her, her children and perhaps six other relatives, Chavez Brito testified.
Another witness said soldiers used an old woman's severed head as a soccer ball.
The litany of terrors recalled in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan President Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has been relentless. The proceedings have been widely hailed by human rights groups as an important reckoning with the past, a rare prosecution of a former Latin American military dictator for war crimes in his own country.
But on Thursday, nearly a month into the trial, the case suffered a potentially devastating setback. In a stunning turn, a judge from a different court granted an appeal from Rios Montt's defense to annul the entire case based on a technicality. That ruling in effect shut down the genocide trial and may force it to start all over. Prosecutors said they would appeal the decision.
"This is an absolute abuse of power, it is illegal, and of course we are going to appeal," Arturo Aguilar, an aide to the attorney general, said shortly after the ruling.
The uncertainty angered survivors, families and human rights advocates who had been attending day after day of wrenching testimony. Witnesses, often through interpreters, have described how indigenous Maya women, children and elderly adults were raped, dismembered, burned and buried in mass graves during counterinsurgency operations that prosecutors say amounted to genocide.
The case against the former Guatemalan president and his military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was not the first time that the world has heard about the atrocities committed by the country's army during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. They have been documented in international truth commission reports, books and films and in the stories that Guatemalans carry with them anywhere they live.
But the trial has given survivors their first opportunity to testify in the same room as the high-ranking officers accused of ordering the burning of villages, the rapes and the executions of more than 1,770 Ixil Maya Indians in 1982 and 1983.
This week, the prosecution finished making its case against Rios Montt, 86, and Rodriguez Sanchez. The defense, seemingly in disarray early in the proceedings, launched its campaign to have the case dismissed, or at least discredited in the public eye.
On Tuesday, coalitions of Guatemalan army veterans, conservatives and Catholic groups placed ads or inserts in Guatemala City newspapers declaring that "genocide never occurred" in the country and that prosecutors are undermining the 1996 peace accords between the military and Marxist guerrillas.
In all, about 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during decades of fighting that started in 1960 after a U.S.-backed military coup, the United Nations has found.
"There is still little consensus in Guatemala over what happened during the armed conflict or why," Mary Speck, a Guatemala-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said by email.
"These attacks on prosecutors — including Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz y Paz — as well as on human rights groups and their international supporters are likely to increase," she said.
If the trial resumes and a verdict is handed down by a special three-judge panel, it could have far-reaching implications for high-ranking army veterans and other members of Guatemala's right-wing elite.
During testimony April 4, an ex-soldier testified via videoconference from an undisclosed location that an army officer named Otto Perez Molina —now Guatemala's president — directly ordered the executions of villagers in 1982.
The implication reportedly rocked the courtroom, producing gasps among witnesses and observers. Perez Molina later labeled the soldier's testimony as "falsehoods," but the implication raised a troubling question.
Could Perez Molina, a retired general protected by immunity as Rios Montt was by virtue of holding a public office, be next in the defendant's chair?
The Rios Montt trial "is going to open doors for prosecutions against other military murderers," said Guatemalan American journalist Francisco Goldman, author of a book about the 1998 killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi. "It's also a way to clean up the murk of all these sorts of hidden powers rooted in military intelligence. And not just in Guatemala."
Here are resources to learn more about the trial and its players.
The Times recently profiled Claudia Paz y Paz, the Guatemalan attorney general described as brave and tireless by the international human rights community but harshly criticized by Guatemala's right. Read the story by Richard Fausset here. And a 1995 Times interview with Rios Montt by Tracy Wilkinson, before the end of the war and when he served as president of Congree, is here.
* Photo: Rios Montt seated right at the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Just days into his job, the top tourism official in the western state of Jalisco was chased and gunned down in a weekend attack that police promptly blamed on the official's previous business-related activities and not on his government post.Jose de Jesus Gallegos was shot to death in his vehicle on Saturday afternoon after a short car chase near a major intersection in Zapopan, a suburb of the state capital of Guadalajara.
According to early reports, Gallegos' driver attempted to outrun the gunmen shooting from a luxury vehicle before another car cut off the official's path, causing a collision. The assailants then reportedly ordered Gallegos from his vehicle, shot him twice with a 9-millimeter firearm, and fled.
Gallegos, identified as a hotel and construction entrepreneur, had only assumed his position as chief promoter of the state's tourism market on March 1. His killing is the first major attack on a ranking government official in Jalisco in the administration of new Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval, which also started just 11 days ago.
Gallegos was buried Sunday amid calls for justice from the business and political elite in Mexico's second-largest city. Leaders also called for more security in Guadalajara's metropolitan region, which has seen increased patrols by military and federal forces after high-profile incidents of cartel-related violence.
On Saturday, hours after the attack, the state's interior secretary said in a news conference that Gallegos' killing was not related to his post in the government but to "economic and business activities he had before being designated secretary of tourism." After those remarks, though, state authorities said Sunday that all lines of investigation remain open.
Regardless, the killing raised the specter of organized crime.
Opposition political leaders suggested that Sandoval did not properly vet his cabinet picks and that the administration should release new officials' financial holdings, "for the good of the state." A hotel chain linked to the dead tourism official reportedly released a statement disavowing any connection to Gallegos.
In Guadalajara, authorities promised to solve the official's killing, but on Monday, the identities of four possible suspects who were detained after the incident remained unknown.
* Photo: Mexican police inspect the crime scene after Jalisco's secretary of tourism, Jose de Jesus Gallegos, was shot to death in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Saturday. Credit: STR / EPA / March 10, 2013.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Gunmen shot at the offices of El Diario de Juarez newspaper early Wednesday in the latest attack against a news organization in northern Mexico and days after an editor was killed near the U.S. border.
No one was injured when gunmen driving past the paper's Ciudad Juarez offices fired seven rounds from a pistol just after 1 a.m., piercing windows, El Diario reported (link in Spanish). Fifteen minutes later, shots were fired at the city's Canal 44 news station.
Nine people were held for questioning late Wednesday in connection with the attack after local authorities and Chihuahua state Gov. Cesar Duarte pledged to find the assailants. It was unclear Thursday if any of those detained were suspects.
Rights groups denounced the shootings as an assault on reporters in Ciudad Juarez, but Duarte later downplayed the possibility that the newspaper might have been targeted for its news-gathering work.
"It's a violent act, but under all the circumstances we can't assume it comes with a larger message," Duarte was quoted as saying Wednesday.
The shootings follow a string of recent attacks against El Siglo de Torreon, a newspaper in the city of Torreon in neighboring Coahuila state.
And on Sunday, an independent online news editor was slain at a taco stand in the border town of Ojinaga in Chihuahua state, across the border from Presidio, Texas. Jaime Gonzalez Dominguez, 38, was founding editor of the online news outlet Ojinaga Noticias.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said his slaying was the first of a journalist in the 3-month-old term of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Gonzalez was the 11th journalist killed in Chihuahua since 2000, said the free-speech advocacy group Articulo 19.
Across Mexico, dozens of reporters and photojournalists have been killed or "disappeared" since the escalation of the drug war in late 2006, with few convictions or even arrests. Most news outlets in areas ravaged by drug trafficking violence practice self-censorship, The Times has reported.
* Photo: A bullet hole is visible in a window of the offices of El Diario de Juarez newspaper in Ciudad Juarez. Credit: Jesus Alcazar / AFP/Getty Images / March 6, 2013, via LAT.
The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex -- Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people -- is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City's brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.
Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.
According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack -- another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.
Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas.
The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to "defend" Pemex from "privatization" with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.
Yet under state control, Pemex underproduces, underperforms, and is being ransacked by organized crime. In this scenario, global oil companies are eager to bid for the chance to help Pemex in its deep-sea drilling operations, or to make it more efficient, or at least safer (by one count, 127 people have died at Pemex sites in Mexico since 2011). Current President Enrique Peña Nieto supports this plan, too, and this Sunday, the PRI's whole party membership voted in favor of privatizing Pemex. That opens the floodgates; they command a majority in Congress. And so it’s likely that one day soon, Mexico’s oil industry will be "open for business" -- for the first time in seven decades.
If Pemex goes "public," so to speak, who in the long run will reap the rewards? The last time Mexico opened up a state-owned utility to foreign investment, Carlos Slim nabbed Telefonos de Mexico (also known as Telmex) and became the richest man on Earth. Was the explosion at the Pemex complex part of a plan to hasten some privatization at the oil giant by creating a deadly PR disaster? A gas explosion at the headquarters of a gas company does look pretty terrible. Or was it an attack by one of Mexico’s guerilla groups, or some unnamed leftist force opposed to what is seen as Pemex’s imminent privatization? The explosion destroyed a human-resources department. Could it have been intentionally set off in order to rid the company of some incriminating paperwork before the utility opens up to newcomers?
Here's what we do know happened. At 3:55 PM that afternoon, as some workers were returning from lunch and others were ending a shift, an enormous boom and shake emanated from around the basement of a 13-story tower at the Pemex complex called B2, adjacent to the main skyscraper.
Witnesses would later describe it as an "earthquake," as an "expanding wave," and say that it produced "smoke but no fire." Investigators would later say the explosion was "horizontal," that it seemed to "lift" the bottom of the building when it hit.
I visited the site the day after the explosion and got a view of about 20 feet from the floor-level spot of the blast zone, covered in rubble and dust. A bunch of reporters and news cameras watched rescue workers clear the wreckage. One Cruz Roja rescuer I interviewed said that he thought the blast zone looked like earthquake disasters he had worked, and looked at me blankly when I asked if it looked like a bomb had hit, saying little more than, "The investigators are investigating."
There were no flames, witnesses said, and no fire, but walls ripped open, floors collapsed, and windows blew out on at least four floors of building B2. Most crucially, the blast destroyed the building's basement, which is where the Pemex human-resources department was located. Many of the dead were its employees.
It wasn't until a full four days after the blast that an official explanation of what might have happened was made public. Authorities believed that an "accumulation of gas," possibly methane, was ignited unintentionally by a crew of maintenance men working in a tight crevice below the basement. The methane theory was laid out by the government with the use of an architectural model of the Pemex complex, which looked nice on a table but showed us nothing of what is located beneath the buildings. Funnily enough, authorities have still not said with total clarity what the ground beneath the Pemex complex exactly looked like before the explosion.
The investigation was still ongoing, officials assured reporters. But the basic story line -- that four workers for a subcontracting firm that had no history of serious accidents unintentionally lit an apparently odorless and unknown source of methane while performing work on the foundations of B2 -- well, all of it seemed insufficient considering that four days had passed since the explosion killed all those innocent people. That's an epic amount of time when compared to how quickly the dirty details are figured out after any big disaster in the United States.
In four days, all Mexico could come up with was a working theory based on a catastrophic fart.
"My personal reading is that all the hypotheses related to the gases is very weak indeed," David Shields, an experienced energy-sector analyst in Mexico, told me over the phone last week. "There was no methane supply in that building, so where does the methane come from? Where does the gas come from? What I am unhappy about is that they very lightly dismissed the possibility of an intentional explosion, a bomb."
A few days after the government released its official explanation, employees returned to their jobs in the explosion-damaged Pemex complex. I visited at 4 PM that day, right about when the blast hit six days earlier, and stood around the makeshift altar that people had left for the victims near an entrance of guarded gates to the complex.
The place still felt tense, and I was slightly creeped out by my physical proximity to that satanic Pemex skyscraper. Additionally, now there were ghosts involved, and a lot of sad and frightened people, too.
I made attempts at talking to adults I assumed were Pemex workers. Among a gaggle of secretaries, I met a woman who later told me her name was Maria Gallardo. At first, Maria, a chill older lady who wore bangly bracelets but seemed like she'd be good in a fight, looked at me with a mixture of anger and fear as she talked about the entire incident.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Elba Esther Gordillo, Mexico's powerful teachers union leader, appeared behind bars Wednesday in an unusual public display as authorities read the charges against her.
Gordillo, 68, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of using more than $200 million in union funds for personal gain.
Gordillo stood in a plain white turtleneck with her hair pulled back, behind a grid of black metal bars, a standard court setup in Mexico. But its live airing on cable TV was unusual because such proceedings in Mexico are rarely accessible to the public. When they have been aired, judicial reform activists have criticized them as unfairly incriminating a suspect.
Gordillo lifted her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed briefly as the charges were read. She is accused of misusing funds belonging to the National Syndicate of Education Workers, or SNTE, for real estate, designer goods, artwork and plastic surgery.
Gordillo, who is considered "president for life" of the teachers union, was arrested Tuesday as she arrived at the airport in Toluca, west of Mexico City, along with three aides.
The move shocked Mexico's political world and came as the union's general council was meeting in Guadalajara, which kept the union leadership far from Mexico City. The council was meeting to discuss a tougher opposition to proposed education reforms aiming to break the union's stifling hold on public schooling in Mexico.
"We trust in 'La Maestra' Elba Esther Gordillo and we await justice," Juan Diaz de la Torre, the union's secretary-general, said in Guadalajara, using Gordillo's nickname, which means "the Teacher."
According to sources cited by the newspaper El Universal, Gordillo had no dinner on her first night behind bars at the Santa Martha Acatitla women's prison in Mexico City. Rene Fujiwara, a grandson who is a legislator in the lower house of Congress, reportedly brought her a bag with some personal items and a toothbrush during the night.
Gordillo was nervous during her medical examination and could not remember the phone numbers of her daughters, one of whom is a senator, the report said.
Thanks to Gordillo's well-known taste for top-of-the-line goods, her arrest rippled into unexpected territory when the Neiman Marcus department store chain reportedly said it would fully cooperate with any investigation in Mexico. According to statements by the Mexican government, a woman linked to Gordillo allegedly bought more than $2 million worth of items at Neiman Marcus stores with illicit funds in 22 transactions from 2009 to 2012.
Mexico's attorney general's office added an "organized crime" charge against the union boss, in effect removing the possibility that she could post bail. With that, Gordillo, who was considered politically untouchable in Mexico only a week ago, remained in custody.
* Photo via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- A Facebook page in Mexico has notched tens of thousands of followers for posting detailed but unconfirmed updates on security risks in the drug-war hot zone of Tamaulipas state. Now, purported assassins have declared a bounty on the head of the page's anonymous administrator.
In response, the Facebook author said the page would not stop gathering and publishing information on shootouts and highway blockades because the Tamaulipas authorities and local news outlets offer nearly zero updates on so-called "risk situations."
The person behind Valor por Tamaulipas posted a photograph last week of a reward notice that was said to have begun circulating in several Tamaulipas cities calling for information leading to the page's author or relatives.
The flier makes an offer of 600,000 pesos, or about $47,000, for information and includes a cellphone number with a Tamaulipas area code.
"I'm not trying to be a hero," the Facebook page says in response to the bounty claim. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to do as a citizen and a member of society before the threat that organized crime poses to the stability of our state and country."
The photographs and postings, like other content on the page, could not be independently verified, a fact that partly explains the appeal of Valor Por Tamaulipas and similar social-media platforms that offer intelligence related to incidents in Mexico's ongoing drug war.
Local, state, and federal government authorities release only scant details, if any, on the conflict in Tamaulipas between federal authorities, Mexico's military, and three major crime groups: the Zeta, Sinaloa, and Gulf cartels. As in many other violence-wracked regions of Mexico, local news outlets widely practice self-censorship.
The sharing of such information -- from sites of checkpoints to times and places of grenade or car-bomb attacks -- has generated risks in the past for social-media users.
In September 2011, a woman known as an info-sharing user of an online message board in the Tamaulipas border city of Nuevo Laredo was found decapitated. Though never fully confirmed by local authorities, the woman's death was blamed on cartel hit men who wanted to silence her constant postings on violent incidents there.
The page where the woman posted, Nuevo Laredo En Vivo, maintains a message board where locals apparently keep posting.
Valor Por Tamaulipas has chalked up nearly 158,000 likes on Facebook since its launch on Jan. 1, 2012. On Twitter, the Valor por Tamaulipas account currently has about 24,400 followers.
In contrast, the state government's official Facebook page has about 3,000 likes, and noticeably no steady updates on risky situations on the ground. And, in a sign of the horizontal nature of the drug-war's information battles on the Internet, a page intended to counter the assertions of Valor Por Tamaulipas has already emerged, calling itself Anti Valor por Tamaulipas.
The administrator of the first Tamaulipas Facebook page did not respond to emailed questions Monday.
Antonio Martinez, a spokesman for the Mexico City-based free-speech advocacy group Articulo 19, said his organization was monitoring the purported threat against Valor por Tamaulipas but suggested that the site might not be administered by an ordinary citizen.
"It's a little strange," said Martinez, who noted the Facebook page routinely praises military personnel and their operations, without mentioning any of the allegations of abuses or criminal activity within the army's ranks in the region.
"We are still investigating, but we think this could be some kind of military strategy, and not a case of a direct threat against one person," Martinez said.
In an interview with the daily El Universal, the Facebook page administrator would "neither confirm nor deny" the assertion that Valor por Tamaulipas is a product of Mexican military intelligence.
Tamaulipas' statehouse has remained silent on the Facebook page and its report of a death-threat. But days after the threat was publicized, the state attorney general's office released a statement reminding citizens that it offers rewards of up to 500,000 pesos, or about $39,000, for information leading to the solving of serious crimes.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Relatives and supporters of six people detained on suspicion of assaulting and raping a group of Spanish citizens near the port of Acapulco briefly blocked the only road to the city's airport in protest Sunday, reports said.
Families of the men said they had been wrongly accused of the attack, which sent shudders through Mexico's crucial tourism industry and among European tourists and expatriates who frequent the southern Pacific coast where it occurred.
Local, state and military authorities in Guerrero state have scrambled to find those responsible for the rapes of the six women Feb. 4 at a beach south of Acapulco's main tourist center and near its zone of upscale resorts. But confusion clearly reigned over the investigation, with separate authorities giving news outlets contradictory information about the suspects.
Their identities and whereabouts were still unknown Monday. Gov. Angel Aguirre added to the confusion over the weekend when he referred to two arrests tied to sexual assaults in the region but which occurred in October and November.
Spain's El Pais newspaper said the victims of the Acapulco assault were all residents of Mexico, not tourists just arrived from Spain, and were about 30 years old. The women declined a medical examination after the attack, Aguirre also said, further complicating the investigation.
Separately, a report released last week by a citizens public-security council in Mexico said Acapulco was the second-most violent city among 50 surveyed worldwide, after San Pedro Sula in Honduras, an added blow to the port's struggling tourism sector.
* Photo by EPA via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Workers at Mexico's state-run oil company have begun returning to the job -- some apprehensively -- amid official declarations of back-to-normal conditions at the headquarters that suffered a deadly work-hours blast last week.
Some workers expressed concern and doubt over the government's initial explanation that the blast was caused by an accumulation of gas ignited possibly by an electrical spark, while others declined to discuss the topic or said evidence pointing to an accidental gas explosion seemed strong.
The workers were interviewed Wednesday, the first full day of operations at the Mexico City headquarters of Petroleros Mexicanos, or Pemex, since the explosion Jan. 31 that killed 37 people and injured more than 120.
Nonetheless, the jitters were visible on the faces of workers who were filtering out of the complex after the 4 p.m. finish to the day's shift.
People in khaki-colored uniforms or office clothing crossed themselves while passing a makeshift memorial to the victims in the shadow of the main executive skyscraper. Signs posted near entrances offered employees psychological services to help cope with any trauma since the blast.
Maria Gallardo, a secretary who has worked for Pemex for 25 years, stood at the memorial and gestured to faces she recognized in a printed photo of the human-resources department that was in the basement.
The government’s explanation of what happened has been met with some skepticism.Pemex has a history of shoddy maintenance, rampant corruption and lax security. Speculation about the cause of the blast has ranged from tragic industrial accident to deliberate sabotage aimed at destroying sensitive documents or derailing efforts of the new government to open the long-protected state monopoly to private and foreign investment.
Luis Alvarez, a 26-year-old plant worker who's been on the job for less than a year, said he participated in rescue efforts in the blast zone. He said he didn't have a reason to believe the explosion was not caused by an accumulation of gas.
"They're saying so many things, you don't even know what to think," Alvarez said. "I wasn't there when it hit. Some said it did smell weird. According to what my coworkers said, those who were there, you could think that what [the government said] is the truth."
Adriana Gutierrez, an office worker of 29 years, stood near a photo she placed in memory of a victim and friend, secretary Laura Gonzalez Sanchez, who worked in a top floor in the main skyscraper and died as she walked past the administrative building when the blast hit.
Gutierrez said the blast might have been intended to destroy records. She said was unafraid to return to work.
The office-worker said she found it "strange" that President Enrique Peña Nieto visited the blast zone hours after the explosion hit, when it was still unclear what had caused the blast or whether any kind of threat persisted.
"It hadn't been clarified what had happened, so why did the president of the republic come? When you look at everything, you say, 'Yes, it's political.' The dumbest person would see it," Gutierrez said.
Authorities have said none of the dead were dismembered or had severe eardrum damage -- typical results of a bomb. The only victims with burns were three workers whose bodies were found in the basement where the explosion occurred, they said.
That is leading investigators to theorize that the workers may have ignited an unseen and apparently odorless gas, possibly with faulty wiring in a lightbulb they connected to illuminate a concrete chamber below the basement.
* Photo: A woman passes the makeshift memorial to victims of the Pemex headquarters explosion, Feb. 6, 2013.
I did not burn down the Peña sign / I applaud the person who did. That’s more or less an invitation. Fuck the law! Those kinds of heroes are needed so that people can become aware that they need to get with it.
** Originally published in the Feb. 1, 2013 print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- In the Mexican remake of the popular U.S. TV series "Gossip Girl," the privileged teens at the center of the drama still have it all: stylish clothes, great hair, top-of-the-line sports cars.
The types are familiar: Bowtie-wearing Chuck Bass is now known as Max Zaga, and effortlessly chic Serena van der Woodsen is now Sofia Lopez-Haro. The setting is no longer the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but the former "jewel" of the Mexican Riviera, Acapulco.
Wait a minute — Acapulco?
As filming began last week in the port city on the southern Pacific coast, "Gossip Girl Acapulco" immediately sparked passionate reactions among social media users in Mexico.
Many expressed disgust at the idea that a show about Manhattan's teen elites would be translated into a contemporary Mexican setting, where drug-related violence, especially in places such as Acapulco, and class and racial barriers remain entrenched. Others, though, said they were dying to see the finished product this year on media giant Televisa.
It may be little more than a whisper-worthy coincidence, but Acapulco is considered one of the most violent cities in Mexico, perhaps topped only by Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2011, the last full year for which figures are available, the national statistics institute said 1,114 people were reported killed within Acapulco's city limits, which has about 789,000 residents.
Kidnapping and extortion are believed to be rampant, and gory execution scenes are common mere blocks from the major tourist zones. The State Department urges U.S. nationals to "defer nonessential travel to areas further than two blocks inland" of the downtown beach.
("Let's hope this new round of 'Gossip Girl' only sees Blair losing her virginity, and, not, on top of it, her head," said the New York Observer, naming another character from the original series.)
Acapulco also happens to be deeply in debt. This month, Mayor Luis Walton Aburto said the city owed about $33.2 million. The city hopes a fresh push for tourism income can help it climb out of its fiscal hole, but when reached by phone, several municipal officials said they hadn't heard about "Gossip Girl Acapulco" until this week.
There is no clear sign that the Mexican series is part of any larger plan to revitalize the struggling city. But the brain behind the project, producer Pedro Torres, said he hopes people will see the beauty of Acapulco through the show and maybe venture to visit.
Torres, in a hurried telephone interview punctuated with garbled asides to aides, said "Gossip Girl Acapulco" will remain true to the story line and character types that captured viewers in the original. The only difference, he said, will be the setting and the use of "mannerisms of Mexican speech."
"It was I who proposed the idea of placing it in Acapulco," Torres said.
One of the most powerful figures in Mexican television, Torres has remade imports such as the reality TV shows "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor" for Mexican audiences.
"There is no doubt that the city of Acapulco has suffered serious problems of drug trafficking and violence like many other cities in Mexico," Torres said. "But, well, this series is not a portrait of that. This is fiction, a complete fiction."
"Gossip Girl Acapulco" is the second attempt at farming out the franchise to a foreign market by Warner Bros., the original show's producers. As The Times reported last year, the company announced the launch of "China Girl," a "Gossip Girl" for Chinese audiences.
In previews of "Gossip Girl Acapulco," in addition to their material wealth, the central characters also seem to have inherited the European-looking side of Mexico's racial spectrum, a persistent feature of Mexican television that can either be read as a reflection of the country's stubborn class hierarchies or as a tool that inadvertently promotes them.
A better term for it might be "aspirational," which is how actor Vadhir Derbez described the show's context during the press rollout for "Gossip Girl Acapulco." Derbez, who plays Max, the Mexican Chuck, said the show will have valuable lessons to offer viewers.
"People see these kids who come from lots of money, and it may seem unreachable," the actor told an interviewer. Yet "it has a strong message behind it, that money is not everything. And that's cool."
Torres' Mexico City-based production company, El Mall, said it is in negotiations with U.S. Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision for possible distribution of "Gossip Girl Acapulco" north of the border.
"I've been living in Acapulco for a month with my family and we've had an incredible time, with an incredible climate," Torres said by phone. "The truth is, one should have the normal prudency like in any other city. We do not have any security detail that is out of the ordinary."
"Gossip Girl Acapulco" is to start airing in July on the Televisa network.
* Photo via Gossip Girl Acapulco FB.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Bodies found dumped in a well in northeastern Mexico may be those of the 18 musicians and staff of a band that went missing after a Thursday night performance, authorities said.
The members of Kombo Kolombia were reported missing Friday by family members who said they lost contact with the group after it performed at a bar along a highway about 30 miles north of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon state.
On Monday, Gov. Rodrigo Medina told reporters that early signs indicated the bodies discovered the day before in the community of Mina are probably the missing members of Kombo Kolombia. Medina said four bodies had so far been positively identified as members of the band but that authorities were holding off on confirming that the entire group was found until each victim was accounted for.
Jesus Valencia, a Nuevo Leon state spokesman, told The Times that 18 bodies were found in a well with a water wheel at an abandoned ranch near the group's last known whereabouts, a bar called La Carreta, where the band played Thursday night.
After the band's performance, 10 armed men entered the bar and ordered Kombo Kolombia and their staff into waiting vehicles, Valencia said. One of the members managed to escape after the kidnapping and told authorities he watched as band mates were beaten and interrogated. The captors then began executing the musicians, the witness told officials.
His identity was not released, but the spokesman said the musician was under state guard and cooperating with the investigation.
News reports said eight bodies had been pulled out by noon Monday, some wearing clothing described as similar to the band's costumes, and showing signs of shooting injuries and torture.
At least one musician in the group was a Colombian national, authorities said, but no other details were provided.
Forensic investigators were on the scene and family members were providing DNA samples to help with identification of the bodies. There were no details on who kidnapped the band or why it might have been targeted.
"We assume their killers are related to some kind of criminal group," Valencia said. "They could have played a song someone did not like or said something someone did not like. We don't know."
Kombo Kolombia was known to play a style of Colombian music called vallenato, which is related to the imported cumbia genre that is widely popular in Monterrey and now considered a staple of the region's culture. The band was young and did not have a national profile in a country where many large musical groups earn a living playing at festivals, dance halls, and parties in the countryside.
According to reports, Kombo Kolombia was a fixture on the nightclub scene in Monterrey, but was not known to play the popular narcocorrido ballads that glorify the exploits of drug lords. Nuevo Leon is one of the most violent states in Mexico, as the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels and their allies fight for dominance of key trafficking routes north to the U.S. border
* Photo via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Noe Hernandez, a Mexican Olympic medalist who was shot at a bar outside Mexico City and later died, was buried Saturday in his hometown of Chimalhuacan in Mexico state.
Hernandez, who won a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the 20-kilometer walk, died Wednesday at 34 after reportedly suffering a heart attack as he recovered from the shooting.
Hernandez was shot in the head during a Dec. 30 ambush at a bar in La Paz, in Mexico state east of the nation's capital. Two others died in the shooting.
Hernandez was shot through his left eye and underwent cranial reconstruction surgery. He was sent home on Jan. 8. He died Wednesday on his way to a Chimalhuacan hospital after complaining of pain, one report said.
Hernandez had reportedly received threatening phone calls. At the time of the shooting, he served as secretary of sports for the Institutional Revolutionary Party headquarters of his state.
Mexico state, which borders Mexico's Federal District on three sides, has seen increasing drug-related crime in recent years as gangs splinter and battle for control of the local drug market. A surge of homicides in recent weeks has grabbed headlines in the metropolitan region of 20 million people.
Gov. Eruviel Avila said via Twitter that he will propose Hernandez be bestowed the State of Mexico Prize posthumously.
* Photo via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY — Mexico's capital and its sprawling suburbs in neighboring Mexico state notched at least 32 violent homicides over the weekend, in what authorities described as an atypical wave of violence for the urban core of the country.
Authorities and city political leaders said there were no indications so far that the rash of killings were related to Mexico's powerful organized-crime cartels, but investigations were ongoing on Monday.
Suspected narco-related killings have increased in recent weeks in north-central Mexico and in persistent cartel battlegrounds such as Jalisco and Nuevo Leon states, but the capital has mostly avoided the kind of bloody massacres that characterize Mexico's drug war.
By Monday, doubts about the nature of the metropolitan region's weekend homicides were aired on social media and by news accounts that pointed to cartel-like tactics in some of the deaths.
In Mexico state, which rings the Federal District on three sides, at least 10 people were killed during the weekend, including five unidentified men whose dismembered bodies were found in plastic bags near the capital city, Toluca, reports said.
In two other cases in Mexico state municipalities, the remains of at least five other people were also found. There were no official statements on the weekend killings from the statehouse in Toluca.
Within the Federal District, as Mexico City is formally known, 22 people were killed in various incidents between Friday evening and Monday morning, said Atty. Gen. Rodolfo Rios. Most of the deaths were gun-related but at least one person was asphyxiated and one man was beaten to death in a fight outside a downtown bar, officials said.
In two cases in the boroughs of Tlahuac and Iztacalco, authorities were still determining whether all of the six deaths were a result of conflict between drug dealers, Asst. Atty. Gen. Edmundo Garrido said in a radio interview Monday. The victims were still unidentified.
Garrido said the city averages about two killings a day, a rate that he said has remained steady over the last three years. The weekend's deaths, however, mark an average of a little more than 6.5 homicides over three days. "This is not common for the Federal District," Garrido said.
The killings take place in the jittery so-called transition period between administrations. The six-year terms began in early December at the federal and local levels.
The new government of Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera launched a weapons-exchange program aimed at reducing violent crime in the poor boroughs of Iztapalapa and Gustavo A. Madero. More than 1,000 firearms have been turned in since Christmas.
In Mexico state, residents in some of the most crime-stricken municipalities have taken to the streets to protest growing incidents of violence.
This month, confidence-control tests for the state police force found 2,400 agents deemed unfit for duty among 18,900 tested. Of those, 800 were declared unfit for "serious faults" such as leaking information to organized-crime groups, officials said.
In a Monday column in the Mexico City daily El Universal, journalist Ricardo Aleman called the weekend's homicide tally a sobering wake-up call for the city.
"It's clear that the [Mancera administration], the press, and society are being overwhelmed by a reality that no one has wanted to acknowledge for years," Aleman wrote. "Criminal violence, executions, cartel adjustments, revenge and vendettas between criminal mafias are already among the capital's residents."
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- At least 140 people reportedly have been killed in recent weeks in a suspected drug-cartel struggle over the north-central region of Mexico known as La Laguna.
Attacks and counterattacks are suspected between the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels over the region that is centered around metropolitan Torreon, in Coahuila state, and includes portions of Durango state. Local, regional and federal forces are also combatting traffickers as well as suspected corruption within their own ranks.
Some 140 people have been killed in a span of 40 days in fighting between the paramilitary Zetas and the Sinaloa federation under the control of fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, according to the daily El Universal. On Dec. 18 in the Durango city of Gomez Palacio, 23 inmates and guards died during an attempted jail-break and riot at a state prison.
On Friday, state authorities in Coahuila arrested the police director and subdirector of the city of Matamoros on weapons charges and turned the two over to federal investigators. On Tuesday, authorities rounded up 66 Matamoros police officers for surprise confidence-control tests; only 58 returned to work Thursday night, the Torreon daily El Siglo reported.
The other eight officers' whereabouts were unknown, but the Matamoros mayor told reporters the police officers were "not disappeared."
Attacks have also been reported in recent days and weeks in metropolitan Monterrey and in Jalisco state.The increase in violence came during the first month of the new administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who entered office on Dec. 1. The month of December 2012 saw a slight increase in reported homicides in Mexico over November 2012, the daily Milenio said.
Peña's government has said one of its top priorities is reducing the homicide rate that soared under the government of former President Felipe Calderon. The new administration, however, is so far sticking to the same basic strategy, with some adjustments, The Times reported.
At the same time, the national statistics institute known by its Spanish acronym INEGI said its "public security perception index," measuring how safe Mexicans say they feel, rose in December over the same period last year.
* Post updated. ** Photo via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities said Wednesday that they have identified a fifth possible victim in a recent string of suspected dog-maulings at a hilltop park in Mexico City, a crisis that has sparked protests from dog advocates and victims' families.The city's attorney general's office released a statement saying it was investigating a case involving a 15-year-old girl named Gabriela Nataret Ramirez, who was found near Cerro de Estrella national park on Dec. 16, mutilated and bitten.
Gangs of dogs are suspected in the gruesome deaths of four other people -- including an infant -- at the park in southeast Mexico City in attacks on Saturday and Dec. 29.
Police have rounded up 25 dogs at the park, including seven puppies, and promised sweeps at other large green spaces in the city, starting with Chapultepec Park and Aragon Forest.
But dog owners and activists said the canines rounded up and seen in photographs released by authorities showed no signs of being violent or having been involved in an attack against a human. People were arriving at the city's canine-control center in the Iztapalapa borough, where Cerro de Estrella is located, claiming they were owners of one of the detained dogs, news reports said.
Additionally, some families of the victims have told Mexican news outlets they distrust the investigations so far, saying their loved ones might have been attacked by humans and claiming the dog-attack theory is a cover-up.
Atty. Gen. Rodolfo Rios said at a news conference late Tuesday that the city's top forensic investigators had reconfirmed that the four victims identified through Monday were killed by bites, mauling, and "pressure" injuries. They also found dog hair on the victims' clothing. There were no signs of injuries caused by weapons or humans, Rios said.
On Dec. 29, the bodies of Shunashi Elizabeth Mendoza Caamal, 26, and an infant were found in the Cerro de Estrella area.
Mendoza, identified in some reports as a Guatemalan immigrant who had lived in Mexico for three years, was found with her left arm torn off and missing. An infant said to be her child was found by her side with bite injuries, officials said.
On Jan. 5, the bodies of Alejandra Ruiz Garcia, 15, and Samuel Suriel Martinez, 16, were found in the park in a "semi-devoured" state, officials said. In both cases, authorities said, biting and tearing occurred before and after the victims' deaths. Authorities confirmed that Ruiz called a sister pleading for help as the attack occurred, but the relative initially thought Ruiz was joking.
The wooded Cerro de Estrella park is known for its Holy Week festivities and its large-scale reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. It is also known as a magnet for petty crime, as Iztapalapa residents use the park for exercise, walks and picnics.
It was still unclear whether the dogs suspected in the attacks were strays or so-called "wild" dogs. It was also unclear what would happen to the canines sitting in the Iztapalapa pound, or if any humans would be investigated or found at fault for the attacks.
Officials have also been unable to explain what might have caused the bands of dogs to reportedly attack humans. Rios said the investigation was ongoing and that the detained pups were still undergoing tests.
"The dogs will not be sacrificed," Rios said. "They will be treated well."
Antemio Maya, president of the Pro-Street Dog Assn. in Mexico City, said he spent a day trying to gain access to the rounded-up dogs and met people who said one of the dogs seen in photographs belonged to them.
He questioned the official investigation and warned against a wave of "hate" against the estimated 1.2 million stray dogs that roam the city.
"It's very, very strange. Strays don't care about humans, they care about females in heat," Maya said. Authorities "are making a huge error. They're generating a climate of hate against dogs."
* Photo: Hand-out from the PGJ-DF showing some of the dogs captured in Iztapalapa after the suspected dog-maulings.
** Originally published at World Now and re-published today with some modifications in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- Promised that no questions would be asked, they've brought in handguns, pistols, rifles, grenades, ammunition, and dozens of gun replicas that may or may not have been used to spook a robbery victim.
Hundreds of people have turned in nearly a thousand weapons and at least one grenade-launcher in nine days in exchange for gifts and cash, as well as anonymity, in a holiday pilot program that has exceeded government expectations in Mexico's populous capital.
The program, For Your Family, Voluntary Disarming, was launched at the historic Santuario de la Cuevita church in the crime-toughened borough of Iztapalapa on Christmas Eve, with promises of tablet computers and bicycles for handing over any firearms.
By Dec. 31, when the offer was supposed to end, about 900 weapons had been turned in, said Rodolfo Rivera, the Mexico City police official in charge of the program. His team restarted the exchange on Wednesday.
The tablets and bikes have long run out, but steadily men and women of all ages arrived with nervous expressions and a curious-looking bag or two. Because Mexico's strict gun laws are regulated by the military, uniformed soldiers examined each weapon to determine its worth, then tagged it with tape and piled it with others waiting to be destroyed.
Alfonso Trejo, a 63-year-old from a nearby housing project, said he turned in two revolvers for cash and a despensa, a basic food package in a cardboard box. "You know, kids can be curious. You don't want that fear, you want calm," he said.
Asked the cash amount he was given for the revolvers, Trejo responded, "Things being the way they are, it's a bit for the ride, for a soda pop."
In truth, cash awards started at about $195 for a .22-caliber pistol and went up to $590 for a rifle. The borough government and the police department have split a cost of $203,000 in cash and gifts so far. The program has been extended through Saturday and will move to the northern borough of Gustavo A. Madero next week.
The program is similar to -- albeit more generous than -- one held in Los Angeles for one day last week. In exchange for supermarket gift cards, Californians turned in more than 2,000 firearms, including 75 assault weapons and two rocket launchers.
Serious crime has dropped in recent years within the boundaries of the Federal District, Mexico City's formal name, while drug-related violence has soared in other regions of the country. The Citizens Council on Public Safety and Justice said serious crimes in the capital dropped 11% in 2012.
Yet wide regions of the sprawling metropolitan zone remain under the threat of gun crime. Iztapalapa, the city's most populous borough, has in particular drawn the attention of the tabloid news pages in the past year for sharp increases in drug and gang violence.
On Nov. 2, a 10-year-old boy named Hendrik Cuacuas was killed by a stray bullet as he sat in a movie theater in an Iztapalapa mall, a case that brought attention to a growing local practice of firing rounds into the sky during parties and the borough's many prized festivals.
As young men carrying covered handguns and rifles kept arriving on Wednesday afternoon, Carlos Candelaria, the borough's public safety coordinator, said the gun exchange program would help. Authorities netted 43 more small guns, 12 big guns, six grenades, and 15 "war toys" such as tear-gas canisters.
"This is one less weapon on the streets, possibly one less life [lost], possibly one less injury," Candelaria said.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government's decision this week not to prosecute top executives at the global giant HSBC for the bank's systematic laundering of money tied to violent Mexican drug cartels or to hostile regimes has resulted in an interesting number.
The U.S. fined the bank a record $1.92 billion on Tuesday, saying HSBC is essentially too big to prosecute. With assets, subsidiaries and investments spanning the globe, pressing criminal charges against HSBC could harm the global financial network at large, the Justice Department reasoned.
The fine, coincidentally, is about equal to the amount that the U.S. government has sent to Mexico in security aid in recent years under the Merida Initiative: A little more than $1.93 billion was sent by the Bush and Obama administrations to Mexico since 2007 to help Mexico fight the drug trade.
In other words, the money the U.S. government would collect from the British-based HSBC for laundering cartel cash would match the cost of the six-year security investment that the United States has made in a neighboring country fighting a bloody internal conflict.
The Merida Initiative funds for military hardware, intelligence upgrades and training is meant to help Mexico's government fight a war against drug cartels, which has left at least 60,000 people dead or missing over six years but made no major dent in the trafficking of drugs to the United States.
HSBC operators in Mexico are accused of laundering $881 million in drug profits, primarily for the Sinaloa cartel, as well as other Mexican and Colombian traffickers. In doing so, it violated a variety of U.S. laws and bank regulations, including the Trading with the Enemy Act and Bank Secrecy Act.
"These traffickers didn't have to try very hard," U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny Breuer said in announcing the decision against HSBC.
"They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a single day in a single account," using deposit boxes "designed to fit the precise dimensions of the tellers' windows in HSBC's Mexico branches," Breuer said.
Pablo Galvan Tellez, a banking professor at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute, said banks are their own first line of defense against laundering activity.
"At the end of the day, banks must be glass boxes, where we can see all the tubes of where the money is coming from and where it's going," Galvan said.
Academic Edgardo Buscaglia, a world expert on money-laundering and organized crime, said the fine was a "farce," a laughable sum that amounted to "peanuts." He told a radio interviewer Friday that the fine equaled five weeks of HSBC earnings.
HSBC apologized this week for its "mistakes" and promised to set up better safeguards against laundering. The Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, is believed to still control trafficking routes over much of western and northern Mexico.
* Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga / European Pressphoto Agency / December 14, 2012.
** Originally published at World Now:
"Excuse me, Mr. President. I cannot say you are welcome here, because for me, you are not. No one is."
The woman's voice trembled with bitterness and apprehension. She stood just a few feet away from a low stage where Mexican President Felipe Calderon, his wife, Margarita Zavala, and top members of his Cabinet were seated at a tightly controlled forum in Ciudad Juarez on Feb. 11, 2010.
"No one is doing anything! I want justice, not just for my children, but for all of the children," she went on. "Juarez is in mourning!"
The woman, later identified as Luz Maria Davila, a maquiladora worker, lost her two sons in a massacre that had left 15 young people dead during a house party in Juarez 12 days earlier.
Calderon initially dismissed the victims as "gang members," more cogs in the machine of violence that by then was terrorizing every sector of what was once Mexico's most promising border city. But news reports quickly revealed that the victims of the Villas de Salvarcar massacre were mostly promising students and athletes.
They died only because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time: Juarez hitmen had been ordered to kill everyone at the party because it was believed that rival gang members were in attendance.
"I bet if they killed one of your children, you'd lift every stone and you'd find the killer," Davila said to the president as the room fell silent after her interruption. "But since I don't have the resources, I can't find them."
Calderon and Zavala remained silent, frowning.
"Put yourself in my shoes and try to feel what I feel," the mother continued. "I don't have my sons. They were my only sons."
It was a searing, unscripted moment in a presidential term that was abundant with them.
In his six years in office, a term ending Saturday with the swearing-in of his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, Calderon's government built bridges and museums, expanded healthcare and led major international meetings on climate change and development. But for the many achievements, the Calderon years will probably be remembered as the bloodiest in Mexico's history since the Revolutionary War a century ago.
Civilians were mowed down by masked gunmen at parties and funerals. Journalists, mayors, human rights activists, lawyers and police commanders from small towns to big cities were shot while sitting in their cars or going on errands. Regular citizens, from small-business owners to oil workers, were snatched from homes or offices and never heard from again.
While drugs continued to flow north and U.S. government weapons and cash laundered by major global banks flowed south, the Calderon security strategy remained basically unchanged over the years. Its effect was a catastrophic expansion of violence and a crime-solving rate of nearly zero.
For average Mexicans, the extreme violence seen during this sexenio -- as a six-year presidential term is called -- was psychologically and emotionally grueling, particularly for children, experts say. In many parts of Mexico, a culture of fear settled over the population.
Overall, more than 100,000 people were violently killed in Mexico during this term, government figures show. The number of those killed directly tied to the drug war may never be known, as the lines blurred between drug-trafficking violence and violence spurred by the general impunity enjoyed by the drug lords.
The national human rights commission says more than 20,000 people are missing in Mexico. Torture is also believed to be widespread nationally.
During this term, Mexican cartels also expanded their control and firepower to Central America, while clandestine anti-trafficking operations led or funded by the United States grew to unprecedented levels, as The Times reported this week. About half of Mexico's territory is believed to be under cartel influence.
Here is a rundown of some significant events and markers of Mexico's drug war from 2006 to 2012 -- the Calderon years.
** Originally published at World Now and re-published in the Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
Will the last wailing, stumbling drunk person on Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi please turn off the lights on the way out?
The government of Mexico City, where drinking until dawn has long been a competitive pastime, has banned the sale and drinking of alcoholic beverages on the esplanade of Plaza Garibaldi. Public drinking was a previously tolerated custom at the meeting point for hundreds of struggling busking mariachi musicians and their glad-to-be-sad customers.
Authorities said alcohol would still be sold at the bars and cantinas that ring Garibaldi, but the practice of chugging beers or downing mixed drinks outdoors in the early-morning hours with mariachis crooning nearby will halt under Operation Zero Tolerance, said Alberto Esteva, subsecretary of public policy at City Hall.
Under the administration of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, the city has invested about $26.8 million to revitalize Plaza Garibaldi, mostly on the construction of its Museum of Tequila and Mezcal and the repaving of the square. The outdoor alcohol ban is one more step in that plan, Esteva said in an interview.
"We gave the vendors alternative options, they didn't respond, and the city had to make a decision," the official said. "Garibaldi is about evoking that Mexican-ness, those customs, but permanent drunkenness is not one of them."
Alcohol sales were first barred Wednesday night, and by Thursday afternoon, without a vendor in sight on Garibaldi's wide expanse, mariachis and business owners expressed ambivalence about the new policy.
"There will be fewer people, because that's why they come downtown. To drink, drink here, and go somewhere else," said Soledad Diaz de Dios, whose family owns a recently renovated pulque bar on the square, La Hermosa Hortencia. "But [the drinking on the plaza] is also bad, for the tourism aspect."
Complaints of violence, public vomiting and marijuana smoking have grown. The plaza has also seen large brawls and confrontations with police involving semi-homeless youths, identified as "punks" by some of the musicians. Reportedly, drinks on the plaza are also sometimes spiked with substances meant to alter drinkers' mental states and thus make them vulnerable to assault.
"[The policy] is good, in quotation marks," said trumpet player Jesus Rosas. "Every Thursday through Saturday night, the party starts. And what's the party? Fights, breaking bottles, robberies."
But without the open-air drinking to go along with the mariachis, norteños, and jarochos, will Plaza Garibaldi ever be the same? Mariachis have complained to the city that the museum, for example, blocks access to the plaza, reducing their customer base.
"It hasn't been reformed, it's been completely tronado," huffed old-timer David Figueroa, a guitar player, using a slang term for broken, failed or flopped.
* Photo: Soledad Diaz de Dios, a vendor at the pulquería La Hermosa Hortencia on Plaza Garibaldi, Oct. 27, 2012.
(You're not supposed to do this anymore in D.F., but oooooh ... just for old time's sake, like it's the year 2002.)
This is Parque de los Dinamos in southwestern Distrito Federal.
The bottom part where most visitors gather is not much. And like with other big parks on the outskirts of the city, there is a petty and sometimes-violent crime issue at los Dinamos that should be noted.
But anyway, it's the woods, it's the mountains, and in crowded chilangolandia, it's a sigh of relief.
Additionally, the pulques are good.
These are curados of piña con guarana and an apio. Both were excellent.