Some of the work produced out of our office in Mexico City shows up on this compilation of highlights from VICE News' year.
Some of the work produced out of our office in Mexico City shows up on this compilation of highlights from VICE News' year.
It's been an honor reporting the news in Latin America. And it's been especially rewarding to cover news in Mexico, on Mexico, and especially for Mexico. Now, after eight years of doing so, I'm relocating to Los Angeles and picking up where I left off.
I've been trying for weeks to come up with something decent to say about this change. I've received anxious reactions from readers asking why I'd leave, and believe me, I've been anxious too.
It's a combination of personal factors and the opportunity for another big challenge.
I needed to invoke binational privilege, and take a little breather on this maddening and infinite place. DF wears on the body and brain. Anyone who's lived there knows this. In my case, the horrors of the daily news cycle in war-weary Mexico began straining me with greater force. Each trip to the field with the VICE News crew in Mexico, to see how someone in my country had something horrific happen to them, with no recourse, no justice, left a little unexpected scar. (I know "tough" reporters aren't supposed to talk about this stuff, but that's that.)
Being away from the beach for so long wasn't good for me either.
I also needed to check back in with my family. Their demands that I be closer to them intensified in 2015 as the news out of Mexico got worse and worse. Yes, the flight to DF is as long as the time it takes to drive between L.A. and San Diego. But it's the cosmic comfort of knowing I'm not across a border and several states away on the bellybutton of the moon that pulled me back.
I also began missing, for reals now, a lot of my old friends.
This is not an act of abandoning Mexico, not abandoning my friends in arms in DF. I'll still be covering the stories that matter to my communities, doing some field reporting in Mexico and anywhere else we gotta check out in Latin America, as long as VICE lets me. I still got my Mexico cell phone. Now I'll also start poking around for stories in Califaztlán and down the border, a fertile land for contradictions to explore.
Not clueless: I know my country the USA is as messed up as Mexico but in different ways. So if you got any leads or tips, drop me a line.
Writing about leaving Mexico has failed me. I can't really wrap my brain around all the issues and implications that this transition stirs up. I love Mexico too jealously — maybe too violently — to attempt to sum up these years with some lines, or even some pages. Maybe a little down the road.
Right now I just wanna wake up on Monday morning and get to work.
I once said this song is an "artifact, a witness, an indictment, a prayer." Ten years later, "Dry Drunk Emperor" by the 2000s New York band TV on the Radio remains the most stirring offering in any language of mourning to the victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
And more potently, ten years after the avoidable disaster, the song is a clear call for revolution. It's references to then-President George W. Bush as a "dry drunk emperor" of "gold cross jock skull and bones" and a "mocking smile" are reminders of the darkest moments of the Bush-era decadence.
In the remembrances this week, where is the acknowledgement of those days' feelings of anger, desperation, disgust? Where is the howling from the bottom of our gut?
I encourage you to listen today to this track and to ponder the power of its lyrics:
dying under hot desert sun,
watch your colors run.
Did you believe the lie they told you,
that Christ would lead the way
and in a matter of days
hand us victory?
Did you buy the bull they sold you,
that the bullets and the bombs
and all the strong arms
would bring home security?
All eyes upon
Dry Drunk Emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
standing naked for a while!
Get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!
and bring all the thieves to trial.
End their promise
end their dream
watch it turn to steam
rising to the nose of some cross-legged god
Gog of Magog
end-times sort of thing.
Oh, unmentionable disgrace
shield the children's faces
as all the monied apes
display unimaginably poor taste
in a scramble for mastery.
Atta' boy get em with your gun
till Mr. Mega-Ton
tells us when we've won
what we're gonna leave undone.
All eyes upon
Dry Drunk Emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
naked for a while.
Get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!!
and bring all his thieves to trial.
What if all the fathers and the sons
went marching with their guns
drawn on Washington.
That would seal the deal,
show if it was real,
this supposed freedom.
What if all the bleeding hearts
took it on themselves
to make a brand new start.
Organs pumpin' on their sleeves,
paint murals on the White House
feed the leaders L.S.D.
Grab your fife and drum,
grab your gold baton
and let's meet on the lawn,
shut down this hypocrisy.
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.
* Photo by Hans-Máximo Musielik.
Here's a link to my print feature in the January issue of VICE magazine, on the Raul Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, near Tixtla, Guerrero. Excerpt:
It's said as a slur, but it happens to be somewhat true. The Federation of Campesino Socialist Mexican Students, uniting the student leadership at 16 schools across Mexico, including the one in Ayotzinapa, formed in 1935. One of Ayotzinapa's best-known graduates, Lucio Cabañas, was national president of this group when he studied there. Cabañas would go on to form the Poor People's Party, a militant political organization with an armed wing. The group kidnapped politicians and operated a radio signal over a wide region in the Sierra de Atoyac.
The students believe in direct action today as well. Through their "Struggle Commission," for example, they take over buses and toll booths. Masking their faces, the Ayotzinapa students charge a flat 50-peso toll on any vehicle that passes, be it private, public, or a commercial passenger bus. We watched as they did this for a few hours one day at the Palo Blanco toll booth. Some motorists I approached in line said they supported the Ayotzinapa students, but about just as many said they were nothing but vandals and hooligans.
Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.
Today marks 20 years since a previously unknown army emerged from the rain forests of the indigenous highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and declared war on the government. It was a landmark day. Even in early 1994, as a 13-year-old middle-school kid living in Southern California, I knew something huge was happening in my parents’ homeland. And I started to pay attention.
That same day, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. NAFTA was going to launch the hemisphere into the age of the globalized economy, inducting Mexico into the club of developed nations. There was what seemed to be an infallible hope of more and better and cheaper goods would pour in from the United States. We were all supposed to be excited about it.
But the armed group that seized parts of Chiapas that New Year’s Day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), had a much different point of view.
They declared war—specifically on an army dozens of times larger than theirs. The indigenous and poor of Mexico had apparently had enough. Under the autocratic regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or “dinosaurs” as they were more colloquially known, exploitation, inequality, and neglect were the norm. Nothing was changing, and there was no potential for change on the horizon. Peaceful means of protest were no longer an option for the army that called themselves Zapatistas, in honor of the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata who took up arms nearly a century before.
The new Zapatistas rightly suspected that NAFTA would do little to better their conditions, or could even worsen them. The guerrillas offered a wake-up call for Mexico, but also, I think, for all of Latin America and for Latino diasporas in the United States.
It was the first armed uprising in Mexico since the country’s “Dirty War” against leftist guerillas in the 60s and 70s (a period that’s been erased from Mexico’s official history, and thus is barely mentioned in the national narrative). It was also considered the first armed uprising in history aided and spread by modern technology and organized through the internet (the EZLN’s first declarations, which were distributed via fax). The guerrillas included men and women, mostly ethnic Maya Indians who spoke Mayan languages. They relied on a charismatic Spanish-speakingmestizo spokesman known as Subcomandante Marcos to send their message around the globe. In short time, Marcos’s pipe, machine gun, and ski mask quickly became iconic.
The armed EZLN rebellion lasted 12 days, costing roughly 100 lives, although that figure remains in dispute. A ceasefire was called, and peace accords began. Those went basically nowhere. A stalemate has hung over the two sides ever since, while political violence and disappearances in Chiapas continue to this day.
On January 1, 1994, no one knew how the Zapatista uprising would play out. But we all knew that Mexico—and a few generations of Mexicans—would never be the same again.
Marco Antonio Cruz, one of Mexico’s most respected photojournalists, managed a photo agency called Imagen Latina at this pivotal time. On the morning after word emerged that the EZLN revolt had begun in the mountains, Marco Antonio and a small group of journalists in Mexico City gathered at the airport and wrangled an airline to fly them to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, after all routes there had been halted. He covered the earliest and bloodiest days of the EZLN conflict.
Today Marco Antonio is photography editor of Mexico’s storied investigative weekly, Proceso. The magazine has published some of the most memorable shots from the Zapatista movement.Proceso’s Mexico City headquarters is a modest, white-stucco house on a residential street in Colonia Del Valle. I recently visited Marco Antonio there to recall the EZLN revolt through the lens of the photojournalists who were there to document it.
“For many of photographers Chiapas is a state where the injustice, the neglect, has been historic,” Marco Antonio told me. “Much of what occurred after the triumph of the Mexican Revolution [1910-1920] never reached Chiapas. It’s been centuries and centuries of slavery and oppression.
“[Photographer] Antonio Turok had already been living there for 15 or 20 years, and my first trips were in the 80s when the Guatemalan refugees arrived. I also did a project about blindness in Mexico, so I went to communities in Chiapas where people were affected by blindness. I knew the situation. It is a place where people die from curable diseases. Something like this had to happen, and so, when it did, it really wasn’t all that surprising.”
In his dim office, the photographer went on to remember the fear that gripped him the first time he saw uniformed Zapatista casualties following their skirmishes with the Mexican Army, and then how he shared in the thrill that many of us felt years later upon seeing the Zapatistas’ caravan arriving before crowds of supportive civilians in the symbolic core of the nation—the Zocalo central square in Mexico City.
Here are 20 photographs that Cruz shared with VICE that tell us, paired with his commentary, the story of 20 years of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional.
“This is by Antonio Turok, he used to contribute to Imagen Latina, and lived in San Cristobal de las Casas. In the middle of the night on January 1, he came upon the arrival of the Zapatistas and the take-over of the municipal hall in San Cristobal de las Casas. They took the main city halls in the highlands and in the jungle, and the most important one was San Cristobal. And this photo, well, is an icon. It is part of the history of this country, the entrance of the Zapatistas.”
** Originally published Nov. 1, 2013, at VICE México:
En Los Ángeles -- la segunda ciudad de mexicanos más grande del mundo -- el Día de Muertos se lo toman en serio. El año pasado estuve en el Sur de California por estas fechas, donde, en el centro cultural Self-Help Graphics & Art, una joya histórica de la raza del Este de Los Ángeles, vi el mejor altar de muertos que jamás he visto.
Lo hizo un artista conocido como Vyal Reyes, en memoria de grafiteros y taggers que han muerto de L.A. durante sus búsquedas por conquistar las calles con sus rayas.
Viniendo de una familia que incluye grafiteros, me impactó mucho este altar.
Primero, el artista uso un ataúd negro como pieza principal, donde metió fotos de graffiti-heads que han caído junto con latas de aerosol negras. Por fuera, Vyal pinto escenas urbanas con ojos "para estar trucha." Colocó latas de aerosol blancas en vez de velas, y pañuelos en vez de mantelitos.
"También incluí una cinta de seguridad, para indicar que la mayoría de estos artistas tuvieron muertes violentas" me dijo Vyal ayer vía correo, desde Los Ángeles.
"No conocí a todos los artistas personalmente", agregó, "pero tengo un gran respecto hacia ellos y hacia las contribuciones artísticas que dieron a la escena. Quiero homenajearlos para que sus esfuerzos no sean olvidados".
Los detalles obviamente tienen un sentido bien pensado. Hay una máscara para pintadores, junto con la salvia blanca que se quema tradicionalmente en California.
"Son las herramientas que usamos para protegernos físicamente y espiritualmente", añadió Vyal.
Afuera en el patio de Self Help, chicos del barrio del Centro de Los Ángeles estaban practicando su "spray art". Adentro, había muchos altares de la comunidad chicana de L.A., pero ninguno tenía la relevancia bruta con las calles como el de Vyal One. Tuve que regresar a tomarle más fotos, y a pararme a contemplar un poco la ofrenda.
El trabajo de Vyal se puede ver aquí. Este año, me dijo, está armando un altar en downtown Los Ángeles.
Rest in peace, Mike ... journalist, press advocate, warrior.
O'Connor was funny as hell, too, in the face of all the calamity he saw in Mexico. A dry wit that seemed at first to border on the unstable. He used extremely, uh, colorful language whenever warranted. It was fun talking to him on the phone, like we did just a few weeks ago. He'd ring me to shoot the shit for a bit, catch up on deep media-world memes. We'd curse the owners, curse the politicians, make dark jokes about life as a reporter in Mexico.
While working for Tracy Wilkinson at the LA Times bureau in Mexico City, I met Mike and gradually got to know the critical work he did in these years. He'd travel to the most cartel-corrupted regions of the country to investigate the murders and disappearances of local news reporters, and to offer support and guidance for those still keeping up a candle in the darkness. His most recent in-depth report on press security in Mexico for CPJ focused on the state of Zacatecas, which, not surprisingly, is smothered by fear, corruption, and silence.
He did it mostly in secret, to protect his subjects, and to protect himself. He was expert at these topics, shared his advice liberally: no photos of you if you cover corruption and drug war in regional Mexico, all lines should be considered tapped and recorded at all times, BlackBerry BBM (was) the most secure communications method for reporters working on dangerous subjects. In conversations both serious and casual, he made it clear: Never, ever trust the Party.
In short, fue un cabrón de los buenos and he will be missed, sorely. Especially now, as the silencing power of political and mass-media hegemony takes hold in Mexico, as the country returns to official-party rule, and as so many journalists begin falling, whether in intimidation, in selling-out, or in death.
Bad news losing you, Mike. Bad news for all of us.
** Originally published at VICE México:
El miércoles fue 2 de octubre, fecha oscura en México para la gente que le importa una cosita que es la protección de derechos y de la justicia en nuestro país.
En otros años, he cubierto la marcha de los estudiantes y de los señores y las señoras del Comité del ‘68, los que siguen vivos, los que siguen caminando cada 2 de octubre en memoria de los compañeros de las unis y las prepas que perdieron hace 45 años en la Plaza de las Tres Culturas. (QDEP Carlota Botey, ¡presente!)
Créanme que la convicción personal me guía como periodista en esta fecha.
La primera vez que entendí lo que ocurrió en 1968 en México —porque nunca se sabrá a fondo y con claridad— caí en una depresión de varios días, no lo creía y no lo quería creer. ¿Dónde hubiera estado si a mí me hubiera tocado caminar por estas calles en esas fechas y no en las de hoy? ¿Estuviera en Tlatelolco en esos días tensos, antes del inicio de las Olimpiadas en la Ciudad de México, cuando las clases medias del “Mexican Miracle” salieron a reclamar la apertura de un estado autoritario y corrupto?
Y a la vez, se me ha pasado la fecha impredeciblemente. El año pasado, casi ni me di cuenta cuando se aproximaba el 2 de octubre. Al final, no hubo heridos en los demadres entre encapuchados/anarquistas/infiltrados/porros y las fuerzas de la seguridad pública en su labor de “vigilar” la marcha conmemorativa, el baile de putazos de siempre.
Pero este 2013 no pude ignorar el calendario. Desde el 1 de diciembre han ido incrementando los golpes entre la policía y manifestantes que ven tan mal su situación y sus expectativas para el futuro que deciden joder el tráfico en la ciudad, y hasta el acceso al aeropuerto cuando se les ocurre. Pobres. Los polis les pegan, y los ciudadanos les tiran duro hate. En todo caso, se siente un lento aumento en la tensión en el aire, y me preocupa lo que traerán los próximos cinco años —por lo menos para todos los que no directamente vamos a ganar bajo la gloria de la restauración del viejo régimen.
Pero… fuera con la depre.
Los días en el inicio del otoño han estado lindos, y hoy viernes es luna nueva. ¡Todo nuevo! Y como la mañana, el día, la tarde, la noche y la madrugada para mí gira alrededor de la comida, decidí el miércoles marcar el 2 de octubre tomándome unos buenos pulques, schido’la’banda.
En la calle Aranda, atrás del triste y olvidado mercado setentero de artesanías de la calle Ayuntamiento, entre unos baños públicos y el Molinero Progreso (que huele tan rico siempre), está la pulquería Las Duelistas. Sí, ya todos las conocen y ya ha salido en todos los medios y ahora llegan turistas y cámaras casi diario. Lo hermoso de Las Duelistas es que a pesar de la atención mediática, no ha cambiado: es un lugar para los viejitos de la colonia que conocen los secretos milenarios de este regalo del maguey, y los chavos estudiantes que lo han “descubierto” de nuevo. (¿Podemos ya dejar de hablar del descubrimiento de estas generaciones al pulque? Ya pasó, ¿no? Por su attn., gracias).
Mi amigo El Ponce me trajo a este lugar por primera vez en 2008 cuando llegué a vivir al barrio. Era cuando apenitas el amigo ponk El Xuve estaba elaborando los bellos murales del panteón de dioses mexicas que ahora decoran el lugar y lo hacen (creo yo) uno de los espacios más especiales en el Centro. El dueño Arturo Garrido siempre me ha dado la bienvenida. Sus curados, más.
Este miércoles en Las Duelistas, me atrajo el tuit de diario de la noche antes, anunciando los curados del día próximo:
Miércoles de Mango, Betabel, Avena, Apio y Guayaba y de botana unos Frijoles guisados con chorizo acompañados de una salsa molcajeteada— Las Duelistas (@LaPulqueria) October 2, 2013
Llegué con mi compañero de VICE México, Alejandro Mendoza, y empecé con un curado de betabel, uno de mis favoritos de este lugar. Como me iba a quedar a tomarme por lo menos dos tarros hoy, pedí la botana, esta vez unos frijoles con chorizo, picados con cebolla y cilantro, y unas tortitillas simples.
La pulquería estaba llena ya de jóvenes y grandes. A tres cuadras de aquí, la policía de la ciudad ya tenía sus vallas metálicas cerrando el paso a la Alameda Central, a Bellas Artes y a Madero. Pero eso no se sentía adentro de Las Duelistas.
Le pregunté a mi servidor de siempre que dónde estaba Don Arturo. Ahí anda, me dejó saber, “A ver si va a la marcha”, agregó, y no entendí si hablaba en serio. En pocos minutos llegó Don Arturo, nos saludamos y sólo se quejó de que los policías hubieran tomado el Centro de nuevo.
Me eché p’atrás el de betabel. Pedí luego un curado de apio, sin chile, sólo sal y limón. Para este entonces, ya sentía la peda de los 400 conejos. Me sentía feliz, fuerte y no quería que las madrizas que seguro venían más tarde en la calle me bajaran la buena vibra.
Los frijolitos me llenaron bien. Me acerqué a la rockola, y, como por instinto, busqué Panteón Rococó. Ahí estaban. Por unos segundos, pensé en pedir “Nada Pasó.”
No, esta vez no. Qué cliché. Qué tristeza. Mejor otra… ¡Salud!
Otras pulquerías donde he chupado, sin fichas directas. (¡Búsquenle, que esto no es Chilango Punto Com, dudes!):
La Ana María, en la Colonia Portales
El Salón Casino, en la Colonia Obrera
La Risa, en Mesones en el Centro
Un puesto en la Merced
La Pirata, por Patriotismo
La Antigua Roma (por si te atreves), sobre Allende, cerca de Garibaldi
No Más No Llores, allá en Xochimilco
La Titina, por Misterios y Calzada de Guadalupe
Un puesto de tacos en la México-Cuernavaca libre, después de Tres Marías
* 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 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.
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 -- Mexico's new government is considering relaunching an abandoned rescue effort to reach the bodies of 63 miners in a coal mine in northern Mexico since 2006, one of the worst mining disasters in the country's history.
The Pasta de Conchos tragedy left 65 dead and exposed poor and dangerous working conditions for miners in one of Mexico's largest but also most under-regulated industries. Relatives of the victims have insisted in protests that the recovery operation be resumed and in recent days sought support from members of the new federal Cabinet.
A methane explosion trapped the miners on Feb. 19, 2006. The recovery effort was abandoned in April 2007 after only two bodies had been brought out.
The Pasta de Conchos disaster deepened rifts between representatives of the victims -- their families and unions -- and Grupo Mexico, the mining conglomerate that owns the coal mine in the municipality of San Juan Sabinas, Coahuila state.
This week, after a fresh push by relatives of the victims before the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the attorney general's office indicated it was open to examining the investigation and possibly reopening the recovery effort.
Speaking Wednesday at Mexico's Senate, the deputy attorney general for human rights, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, said the Pasta de Conchos case is a reminder that poorly regulated mines known aspozitos should be closed.
"We should prohibit pozitos, because since Pasta de Conchos they've generated an unjustified number of dead," Garcia said. "They're an avoidable human pain."By one count of victims' relatives, at least 67 more miners have died since Pasta de Conchos in accidents or explosions in Mexico through early 2012.
No dates or guidelines have been been set yet for a reexamination of the case, said Armando Seguro, a spokesman in the attorney general's office.
Juan Rebolledo, vice president for international relations at Grupo Mexico, told The Times that the company has not received any formal petition to reenter the mine and would not comment further.
The explosion occurred during the mine's overnight shift. Some basic figures about the incident, such as at what depth it occurred, remain in dispute. In 2008, widows of the miners and volunteers from other mining regions of northern Mexico converged at Pasta de Conchos and attempted to storm the mine and launch their own effort to reach the bodies.
* Photo by Sharon Steinmann, via LAT.
If you get a weird jumble of characters in your reader for the headline for this post because of the capitalized ñ in it, it's a minor inconvenience worth swallowing while getting to know the artist and electronica producer known as Ñaka Ñaka.
** 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.
** 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 in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY — For nearly 50 years, the mummified remains of a dog believed to have lived 1,000 years ago sat forgotten in a school museum in north-central Mexico.
That meant, among other things, that no one got to admire the ancient dog's irresistible facial expression.
The canine, which has no name, appears in recently released photographs lying on its side as if relaxing. Its expression is serene and somehow friendly.
Archaeologists say the mummified male dog is about 1,000 years old, but other than that, little is known about it, including whether it is a xoloitzcuintle, the indigenous Mexican hairless dog, because of its curious shape.
The specimen was pulled from the Cave of the Candelaria, a 30-foot-deep ancient burial site in the semidesert region known as La Laguna, by government researchers in 1953. Along with the dog, archaeologists found textiles, ceramics, arrowheads and mummified figures such as a 3-year-old child wrapped in a rope.
The National Institute of Anthropology and History says it was eventually stored at the museum of the Escuela de Bachilleres Venustiano Carranza, a state school in the city of Torreon.
It lay there, in effect forgotten, until August, when the institute's archaeologists at the Regional Museum of La Laguna examined the school's holdings, found the dog and determined that it hadn't been properly studied. Authorities said the dog will soon undergo DNA tests and carbon-dating.
Jaime Alejandro Bautista, the institute's subdirector of public records, said the mummified remains would prove telling if they turned out to be those of a xoloitzcuintle — pronounced "cho-los-kuint-leh." It would push the border of the breed's native region significantly farther north than the Mesoamerican region of central and southern Mexico. It could also suggest that nomadic northern peoples such as Chichimecas had earlier contact than previously thought with urbanizing pre-Hispanic societies such as the Aztecs.
"We know that dogs are associated with funeral rites in pre-Hispanic societies, so it is likely that it was deposited there intentionally," Bautista said. "The dog mummified naturally, due to the conditions of the microclimate in the cave."
Its skin, or what's left of it, is coated in a varnish, a preservation-minded mistake years ago by an unknown custodian, Bautista said.
"We just lost track of it. At the time, an adequate museum did not exist to receive it," he said.
Indeed, the northern region of Mexico is sorely understudied by anthropologists and archaeologists in comparison with the deeply studied Mesoamerican region. There are even fewer U.S. specialists — "five or six," by one count — who concentrate on the north and who might be able to independently comment on the rare mummified dog.
The dog could be put on display at the Regional Museum of La Laguna as early as mid-2013.
In the meantime, its friendly expression will remain out of public view.
** All photos courtesy of INAH.
** 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.
It's amazing how deeply communities in the United States have embraced the Días de Muertos of Mexico. There are now hundreds if not thousands of Day of the Dead-related events in cities across the U.S. "Average American citizens" know about the holiday and understand its meaning. In a way, it's probably the most successful cross-over act in recent U.S./Mexico binational relations.
I'd say the phenomenon really took off in about 2000. At the time, the Day of the Dead festival at Hollywood Forever cemetery began popularizing, drawing non-Mexican, non-Latino folks' curiosity. (Check out an archival story I did for the L.A. Times in 2002 on the Hollywood event, which started in 1999.)
From there, the gospel of Muertos spread, helped likely by factors such as increased Mexican migration northward and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which undoubtedly had the effect of reminding Americans' about the fragility of life.
This year, I went to the Day of the Dead festival in Old Town San Diego with my family. The setting is great. Old Town is the city's original Mexican core, settled after the 1769 founding of a Spanish imperial fort on a nearby hillside. On Friday night, Nov. 2, the crowds were only dotted with mexicanos. The rest of the skeletons were everyday coastal Californians.
Here are some photos.
** Originally published at World Now:
Two migrants have died after a boat carrying 23 Cuban nationals fleeing the tightly controlled Communist nation capsized near a tourist island off Mexico's coast, news reports said.
Ten of the migrants were in custody and 11 were missing but presumed to have made it to the island elsewhere, port captain Ismael Gonzalez Gil told the daily El Universal. Their whereabouts were unknown.
The migrants were trying to land at Isla Mujeres, about eight miles off the Yucatan peninsula, near Cancun, when their boat capsized in heavy surf early Friday. They were reached by a Mexican navy patrol after their improvised boat flipped, reports said.
Photographs published online showed a group of men standing on the beach, some crying and hugging, identified as migrants who were mourning the two dead.
Cubans have increasingly attempted to reach the United States through Mexico. The number of undocumented Cuban migrants arrested by Mexican immigration authorities soared from about 200 in 2004 to at least 2,000 in 2008, The Times reported.
Local naval authorities told news outlets they was searching the island and the mainland coast for the 11 missing migrants.
* From Latino USA:
Singer Chavela Vargas was beloved throughout the continent for her rough yet tender voice singing songs of love gained and lost. She died August 5. Reporter Daniel Hernandez attended her very public wake in her adopted home, Mexico City.
Listen to the piece here. Previously, "On voting for the first time for president in Mexico."
** Photo: Fans at Garibaldi.
** Originally published at World Now:
A recent string of deadly incidents tied to Mexico's drug war does not appear to indicate a surge in the violence but does suggest a new flash point as the fearsome Zetas cartel shows signs of splitting apart.
Fourteen bodies were found dumped in San Luis Potosi state on Thursday, and the mayor-elect of the city of Matehuala in the same state was killed in an attack along with one of his campaign aides as they left a party Sunday.
The incidents are rare for relatively peaceful San Luis Potosi. One journalist's account, yet to be confirmed by authorities, says the Zetas are facing an internal struggle between a camp following its leader, "Zeta 40," and one following "Zeta 50."
New figures show a steady and unrelenting pace in drug-related homicides as Mexico approaches six years of the government's fight against cartels, which are themselves battling one another over trafficking routes.
Deaths allegedly related to organized crime have remained steady in 2012 in the states already identified as Mexico's most violent: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Nuevo Leon, Jalisco and Coahuila, according to a July report by Lantia Consultores in Mexico City.
Lantia analyst Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez reports that homicides in Mexico tied to organized crime grew by 10% in the first half of the year over the last half of 2011.
In contrast, President Felipe Calderon said earlier this month that such homicides have dropped by 15%. The president compared figures in the first half of the years, however, not the second.
Such contradictions over the numbers are reminders that accurately counting the victims of Mexico's conflict will always be a murky process and, inevitably, a political one.
With less than four months to go in Calderon's six-year term, his administration is under pressure to convince the public that the security strategies have worked. Calderon hands power in December to President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who has pledged to maintain the offensive against Mexico's cartels.
The federal attorney-general's office has counted drug-related homicides only through September 2011, and that figure stands at 47,515 since December 2006, when Calderon took office. Separately, the National Security Council said in a report last month that 10,604 aggravated homicides occurred across the country in the first half of 2012.
But crucially, these figures are not yet divided into drug-related and non-drug-related.
Moreover, the federal government relies on figures sent to Mexico City by local and state governments, whose methods for counting are notoriously unreliable or motivated by political interests.
In another estimate, the Ciudad Juarez newspaper El Diario said on Aug. 4 that it found that 83,541 people were killed in Mexico, in both drug-related and non-drug-related homicides, from December 2006 to December 2011, citing figures it gathered using a freedom-of-information request.
Last week, grisly massacres dotted the country from the port of Acapulco in the south to Coahuila state in the north. On Tuesday, authorities said nine people were killed overnight in a shootout in a bar in the increasingly troubled city of Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope writes that any uptick in recent days may be at least partly attributed to high summer temperatures in many regions of the country, and to patterns in drug-producing harvests in Mexico.
Meanwhile in the United States, Mexican poet and activist Javier Sicilia has launched a Caravan for Peace, along with victims and survivors, in an effort to bring attention to the consequences of Calderon's war on cartels.
The caravan is scheduled to visit a string of U.S. cities and arrives in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, where it plans to stay for three days. It was in Los Angeles this week.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Family members display portraits of dead or missing loved ones at La Placita Church in Los Angeles on Monday as part of the Caravan for Peace being led across the United States by Mexican activist Javier Sicilia. Credit: Frederic J. Brown / Agence France-Presse/Getty
** Originally published at World Now and re-published in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times, with added material from the Mexico City bureau:
Fourteen bodies were found in a truck Thursday in the state of San Luis Potosi, at least 17 people have been killed since Sunday in the port of Acapulco, and 12 others were reported killed in 24 hours in metropolitan Mexico City.
The string of bloody reports grabbed headlines in Mexico, reminding the public that drug-related violence continues unabated as the six-year mark approaches in the federal government's declared war on drug cartels.
The bodies were found Thursday in a truck left near a gasoline station on the highway between the city of San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas state. Authorities said in initial statements that all the victims were male and had come from the neighboring border state of Coahuila.
Body dumps along highways are a fixture of the conflict between Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, Sinaloa and the Zetas. San Luis Potosi, however, until recently had not seen the same level of violence as other parts of the country.
In Acapulco, where smaller rival drug-trafficking groups are still locked in a struggle for control, the victims of an attack on a family included a pregnant woman and a 3-year-old boy, El Sol de Acapulco reported, accompanied by graphic images.
They were killed along with a man and two other women in an early Wednesday morning attack on a "humble house" in a low-income neighborhood called Colonia Ampliacion 5 de Mayo, the newspaper said. At least 12 other people have been killed in Acapulco since Sunday.
In Mexico City, seen as a relative haven from the drug-related violence that besets many other regions of the country, 12 people were killed in the metropolitan zone on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Four men were shot to death during a neighborhood street festival in the populous borough of Iztapalapa on Tuesday afternoon.
In Colonia Country Club, an upper-class neighborhood in the Coyoacan district, one suspected criminal was killed in a gunfight when federal authorities served a search warrant on a house. The federal prosecutor's office said two Colombians and one Israeli were arrested, but they were not identified.
Early Wednesday, the owner and five employees of a bar in the suburb of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl were slain by armed men, reports said.
The Mexico City tabloid La Prensa reported that a local crime group that calls itself "The Business" killed the six victims because the bar, La Pachangona, would not pay an extortion fee.
Later, a real estate businessman was gunned down as he left his offices in the middle-class central district of the capital. Jaime Quiroz Gutierrez, 59, was shot three times on New York Street in Colonia Napoles as his two bodyguards watched, some reports said.
With a population of 20 million spread over the Valley of Mexico, the capital's enormous size often means multiple violent attacks can have little effect on daily life, yet the drug war has not been absent from the urban zone.
Scores have been killed in Mexico City and the neighboring state of Mexico since the government's offensive against cartels began in December 2006, official figures show. Violence against women has surged in the state recently governed by President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, The Times reported.
President Felipe Calderon told the National Security Council on Aug. 2 that drug-related homicides had dropped nationally in the first half of the year over the same period last year by 15%. Homicides overall have dropped 7%, Calderon said.
The federal government's drug war death toll remains tallied only until September 2011, at 47,515. Peace activists and some independent analysts say the toll now surpasses 60,000, with at least 10,000 missing.
Other grim stories were circulating in Mexico on Thursday. Four women were found tortured and strangled to death in the northern city of Torreon. In the western state of Sinaloa, armed men killed seven ranchers on Wednesday.
* Photo: A handout photograph made available by Pulso newspaper shows authorities investigating a vehicle that was found to contain 14 dead bodies in the state of San Luis Potosi on Thursday. Credit: Teodoro Blanco Vazquez / Periodico Pulso / European Pressphoto Agency
** Originally published at World Now:
It is almost pointless to be sad about the passing of Chavela Vargas. Her entire life, through song, was about transcending and challenging death.
The singer, who passed away Sunday in Cuernavaca, lived to be 93, surviving many contemporaries from decades ago when Vargas wore men’s clothes, smoked, and carried a pistol in macho-bound Mexico.
Then she disappeared. For a few foggy years in the last century, when Vargas stayed away from the capital's cabarets and fell under the spell of alcohol in a forgotten town in the state of Morelos, she had become a ghostly myth. Many people actually thought she had died.
After the reflourishing of her career -- starting in 1991 at the Coyoacan district cabaret El Habito, but marked for U.S. audiences by her performance of "La Llorona" in the 2002 film "Frida" -- Vargas through her performances seemed to be gamely singing her way around death.
It was always a fair match, always a matter of courtly struggle against a respected rival.
In her songs, in that uniquely Latin American way of romancing melancholy, Vargas would channel the long echoes of sorrow and pain that accompany any life as long as hers, armor against its end. Few details are known about her famous affairs, but we didn't really need them. Her songs about love and loss evoked countless shivers and heavy hearts, countless borracheras -- enthusiastically sorrowful drinking sessions.
For that, audiences and listeners across Mexico, the Americas and Spain would sometimes find themselves under a surprising state of rapture in the presence of her voice. It was pleading and raspy, yet always remarkably controlled.
On Monday night, throngs of Vargas devotees filled Plaza Garibaldi near downtown Mexico City to be near her casket for a few hours and participate in a customary Mexican ritual that's become familiar after the passings of Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais: a public mourning session.
Howls of farewell from fans were heard across the plaza. When prominent folk singer Eugenia Leon led the crowds in the universally revered ranchera ballad “Volver,” which Vargas always delivered with fire and ruination, hundreds of voices joined in what felt like a spontaneous group therapy session. There was a lot of tequila flowing by then.
This sort of event in any context can become a platform for insincere or awkward reactions to the death of a beloved figure, and this was particularly apparent. The memorial was organized by the culture ministry of the Mexico City municipal government and included the participation of a mariachi band associated with the media conglomerate Televisa.
Against such a powerfully distinct voice as that of "Chavela," the tributes sung by Leon, Tania Libertad and Lila Downs as "offerings" before her reboso-covered casket served only as reminders of what has been lost. All are accomplished singers, but none could capture what Vargas could.
When she sang, she'd sometimes lift her chin in a slow physical gesture, as if exposing both her dignity and wounds. At a microphone, she'd take her arms and raise them past her head, palms open, as though conjuring a ghost. Vargas might have laughed out loud if she was observing the memorial Monday night from the comforts of the Aztecs' underworld.
At Plaza Garibaldi, the troubled meeting-point for Mexico City’s roving mariachi musicians, several mariachis said gruffly that they were respectful but indifferent to her passing because Vargas usually did not perform with mariachis but with the solitary guitar.
She did, however, drink at the Tenampa cantina on the plaza. On Monday night, a group of longtime lesbian activists who knew Vargas gathered at a table at the Tenampa, with a bottle of tequila in her honor.
Patria Jimenez Flores, 55, described herself as a "spiritual daughter" to Vargas, who was also seriously regarded by many as a shaman.
"She was the first to break with all the stereotypes and paradigms in a country like Mexico, that is somachista. She took the criticisms, and then had the public at her feet," Jimenez said.
A comment heard since Vargas's death is that, as a chamana, she not merely died but "transcended" to another plane.
In one of her final interviews, Vargas told the El Universal newspaper's Sunday magazine in April that she was enjoying her final years in her home in Tepoztlan. She told the magazine that she would "cease living without dying."
* Photo: Chavela Vargas performs in Lima, Peru, on Oct. 12, 2002. Credit: Jaime Razuri / AFP/Getty Images