News, links and observations about Latin America

Posted in Latin America | 12-Apr-07 | Source: Los Angeles Times

Times correspondents across the Americas offer tidbits from their notebooks and local media.

Mystery of the missing pollster

There's been a news black-out in Guatemala over the kidnap and release of one of the country's leading political pollsters, Emilio Arroyave, earlier this month.

Arroyave, of the polling firm Vox Latina, is doing work for the newspaper Prensa Libre in advance of September's presidential election. He issued a national poll March 30 showing center-left candidate Alvaro Colom, of the UNE party, with a 10-point lead over retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina of the conservative Patriot Party.

Two days later, he was snatched and held for two days. He was released unharmed after his family paid about $5,000, according to the editor of Prensa Libre.

The lack of news stories has fueled speculation over the motive of his captors: whether financial, or political dirty tricks. Prensa Libre editor Gonzalo Marroquin says the kidnappers didn't know Arroyave; only that he was driving a BMW.

Arroyave was too traumatized to talk, said a family spokeswoman. Marroquin promised more details Thursday during a visit to Mexico City.

Posted by Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez in Mexico City

A refinery in Central America's future?
Mexican President Felipe Calderon is talking energy with heads of state of eight Central American countries at this week's reunion of members of the Plan Puebla Panama in Mexico's Campeche state. Known by its initials PPP, the project seeks to stimulate trade and attract investment to impoverished southern Mexico and the nations of Central America.

The plan has gotten off to slow start since it was hatched in 2004, but leaders say they are committed to integrating economies of the region. One of their priorities is building a petroleum refinery somewhere in Central America to provide cheaper, more reliable supplies of fuel to Mexico's oil-starved neighbors.

Mexico's national daily El Universal today reported that four companies - Reliance Industries Ltd., China National Petroleum Corp., Valero Energy Corp. and Itochu Corp. - have expressed interest in bidding on the project.

Posted by Marla Dickerson in Mexico City

Threats silence 'Al tanto' news program

The international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, reports that the news program "Al tanto" of recently slain journalist Amado Ramírez on Radiorama Acapulco was taken off the air after the station received threats.

Ramirez was a well-known correspondent for Televisa, and was killed last Friday in what is suspected to be a reprisal by drug-traffickers. The day after his murder, the Radiorama Acapulco security guard got an anonymous phone call warning that "we haven't finished yet," the group reported.

The warning said that Misael Habana, the co-presenter of "Al tanto," would be the next target. Habana said Ramírez had received telephoned death threats a month ago. Here's the site

About 200 journalists marched through Acapulco on Tuesday to demand justice in the slaying. The Associated Press said federal prosecutors later announced they had detained two suspects in the case at a police checkpoint in Acapulco, and found a pistol of the same kind used to kill Ramirez in their car.

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan Times Foreign Desk

It's pawn shop time in Mexico City

Lines of customers stretch more than a 100 deep at the main branch of Nacional Monte de Piedad, Mexico's national pawn shop this week. There's three busy seasons for quickie loans in this credit-starved country: the Christmas holidays, back-to-school week in the fall and spring break.

About 30,000 people came by Monday, said Gustavo Mendez Tapia of the flagship branch in Mexico City's main square. Nearly everyone brought jewelry; a handful had appliances. They're loaned about half what an appraiser figures it could be sold for. Why now? It seems every year a lot of folks splurge on Easter week vacations that end up costing a lot more than planned.

Hustlers lurk outside the main entrance and offer their own bids. "I'll give you the best price," said one man. When shown an L.A. Times-issued Blackberry, he turned up his nose. "Nobody wants those," he said. "How about your watch?"

Posted by Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

The roots marketing of 'Cocalero'
The traditional film-festival circuit is taking a detour in the case of "Cocalero," a documentary about Bolivian President Evo Morales, who rose from union activist in the coca-growing fields to election in 2005 as Bolivia's first indigenous president.

The documentary, which has already appeared at Sundance and the Mar del Plata film festival in Argentina, is to be screened April 19 in the Chapare, the Bolivian coca-growing tropics where Morales, an Aymara Indian, first gained exposure on the national and international levels.

The film's positive treatment of the controversial leader, a major critic of U.S. policy in Latin America, should go over well in the Chapare, where the charismatic Morales remains head of the federation representing coca-leaf producers, known as cocaleros. Morales reportedly plans to attend the event. He has championed coca-leaf cultivation for tea, medicinal and other purposes, even as U.S. authorities have warned that much of the leaf goes to cocaine production.

Discussions are said to be underway for a commercial release of the film

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires

U.S. officer to address Gitmo rights issues
In a rare voice of dissent on the U.S. military's treatment of war-on-terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a professor of constitutional and military law at West Point will be addressing human rights issues during a photo exhibit and debate tonight on the prison and interrogation network that has drawn international denunciation.

Lt. Col. Mark A. Bridges will join fellow pro bono attorney Anant Raut at the University of St. Thomas to talk about ``The Challenges of Guantanamo: The Legal and Human Rights Issues.'

The photos, "Guantanamo: Pictures from Home. Questions of Justice" were taken over a two-year period by Margot Herster, whose husband also represents Guantanamo detainees on a pro bono basis.

Herster's photos will be at the FotoFest Gallery at Vine Street Studios in Houston through May 19.

Posted by Carol J. Williams in St. Vincent

Colombia, Nicaragua border dustup
Border disputes are recurring sources of invective and sometimes violence in Latin America, such as the 1990s miniwar fought by Ecuador and Peru.

These days, Venezuela and Guyana are at loggerheads over their common Orinoco delta territorial limits, and Bolivia's claim to a piece of the Pacific Coast staked out by Chile since the two countries' 19th century war is still a source of tension.

But a long- simmering dispute recently in the headlines involves offshore Caribbean territorial rights to an area near San Andres Island claimed by Colombia and Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega complained about the scheduled presence of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe at the Plan Puebla-Panama summit in Campeche Mexico this week. Ortega claimed that Colombia was coming to firm up regional alliances in the region with an eye to "rob" Nicaragua of its territory, an apparent reference to an appeal Nicaragua is making before the international tribunal at The Hague over the 1920s treaty that set the limits.

In comments to the Bogota daily El Tiempo, the Colombian foriegn relations ministry claimed that Colombian rights to the offshore parcel have been confirmed by international treaties and that Uribe was attending the Campeche summit to "further regional economic development and integration."

Posted by Chris Kraul Bogota Bureau Chief

Mixed emotions on Falklands War anniversary
If you missed the 25th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War on April 2, no worry. There are more commemorations planned for the July 14 anniversary of the islands' "liberation," as residents of the British dependency call it.

Argentina, which calls the archipelago the Malvinas, marked the bitter anniversary of its failed attempt to retake the disputed islands by reasserting its claim to the chilly archipelago off the Patagonia coast. The invasion proved to be a resounding defeat for Argentina's military junta, and most see it as the beginning of the regime's demise.

A list of events planned for the next milestone is BBC has a voluminous retrospective

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan Times Foreign Desk

Ecuadorians favor constitutional assembly
Nearly two thirds of Ecuadorians polled favor a new constitutional assembly as called for by President Rafael Correa, according to a story published today in the Spanish daily El Pais.

A nationwide plebiscite on a new assembly is scheduled Sunday. Correa's supporters believe rewriting the unstable country's constiuttion is the only way out of the political miasma that has resulted in eight presidents in a little more than a decade.

His critics, however, fear the left-leaning former economic professor will use an assembly to gather power, much like his friend Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez used his after assumign office in early 1999.

Posted by Chris Kraul Bogota Bureau Chief

Castro no fan of ethanol...or brevity
The latest ruminations of Fidel Castro, blasting a U.S.-Brazil accord on ethanol, are available online at the Cuban Communist Party's house organ, Granma.

Still recovering from intestinal surgery, Castro has talked on the telephone and written columns. But his brother, Raul, is still running the government. Castro is not known for brevity, and the column is no exception, making it hard to imagine it's ghost-written.

The dictator has clearly been keeping up to date on world grain prices, global warming and the mysterious disappearance of bees in the United States. Check it out here.

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan Times Foreign Desk

A lesson in tortilla economics
Fresh corn tortillas were selling today for 80 cents a kilo at one of the tortillerias in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. Hot out of the bag, they taste nothing like the tough, bland discs sold at L.A. supermarkets.

A spike in tortilla prices to more than $1 a kilo this winter triggered demonstrations and fears of an inflationary spiral. They're still selling for 20 cents a kilo more than Mexicans were paying a year ago. But apparently the government-negotiated price ceiling remains below the threshold of revolution.

Inflation still looms over the four-month-old administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. But central bank estimates this week show the threat easing. Mexico would like to keep inflation at 3%, but will settle for its current annualized rate of about 4%.

Posted by Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

Duking it out in El Salvador
Fed up with political gridlock and partisan sniping inside the Washington Beltway? Such conditions are becoming the order of the day in El Salvador.

Though the country's next federal elections still are two years away, the campaign already has begun on a bitter note, according to a story in the Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy.

The story by reporter Caterina Monti discusses the lack of cooperation and mutual antagonism between the two main political parties, the ruling, right-leaning ARENA and the opposition leftist FMLN, which was formed out of the guerrilla forces that fought a 12-year civil war with the Salvadoran government that ended in 1992.

There'll be plenty at stake in 2009, which will be the first year since 1994 in which the presidential, legislative assembly and municipal elections all will be held simultaneously.

"ARENA and the FMLN are two trains that are going to collide," economist Roberto Rubio-Fabian is quoted as saying.

Posted by Reed Johnson in El Salvador

The legend of Pedro Infante
Fifty years after his death in a plane crash on April 15, 1957, Mexican singer Pedro Infante still sells 100,000 albums a year, a miracle given the country's thriving bootleg industry. The former cowboy singer-turned-film idol remains a legend, as well as a thriving business, according to El Universal newspaper.

Heirs have trademarked his name and are planning to use it for restaurants, gyms, a museum, and even a brand of Tequila: el Pedro Infante, light and dark. Here's a taste of what everybody's (still) talking about.

Posted by Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

Prince Harry hits the bars of Barbados
In a Spring Break state of mind, Britain's Prince Harry has been vacationing in Barbados ahead of his expected deployment to Iraq with British forces.

The 22-year-old third in line to the British throne has been spotted drinking rum punch and feasting on lobster with girlfriend Chelsy Davis, according to local media and London's Daily Mail tabloid.

"Harry has made no secret of the fact that he wants to let his hair down," the Mail quoted a source as saying of the prince who often makes headlines for his revelry. "They have been boozing out a lot and are no strangers to the dance floor -- they have been entertaining everybody else a lot."

But the partying will end soon, as Harry is headed to Iraq for a six-month tour with Britain's Household Cavalry.

Posted by Carol J. Williams in Bridgetown, Barbados

Pedal power in Mexico City
His predecessor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador built a second story on a major freeway to ease Mexico City gridlock. New Mayor Marcelo Ebrard wants to get the capital moving with buses and bikes.

His administration is planning a major expansion of the city's successful bus rapid transit system, known as Metrobus. But the biggest headline grabber is Ebrard's vow that he and his cabinet will bike to work the first Monday of every month in an effort to encourage more citizens to use this clean form of transportation.

Wary capital denizens can't decide if he's visionary or nuts. Maniacal drivers mow down hundreds of pedestrians a year here. Bikers are viewed as roadkill in training. Ebrard and his crew survived their first spin on April 2, albeit it was a holiday week and traffic was light. Two-wheel enthusiasts such as Mexico City's Bicitekas hope the mayor's efforts will be the catalyst for more bike lanes and respect for cyclists.

Posted by Marla Dickerson in Mexico City

The long arm of Sam Zell
Chicago real estate tycoon turned media mogul Sam Zell says he's looking to make money from his purchase of the Tribune Co., but he also made a killing south of the border.

Zell's international business arm in 2002 invested $32 million in Desarolladora Homex, a Mexican construction firm. Three years later, his stake was reportedly worth about ten times that.

Zell's investments in Homex, which began in 1999, helped turn the formerly small-potatoes, Sinaloa-based firm into one of Mexico's leading home builders. The company went public in 2004, taking advantage of the country's housing shortage and skyrocketing demand.

"Today, more than 140,000 families live in a home built by Homex," according to its website.

Posted by Carlos Martinez in Mexico City

Cinema divorce, Mexican style
Has the highly successful partnership behind "Amores Perros" and "Babel" gone to the dogs? That's the gist of the cover story of the March edition of Chilango, a Mexico City magazine devoted to hot gossip, hot bars and lifestyles of the young and fabulous in the nation's capital.

The story, by Aníbal Santiago, examines the rift between director Alejandro González Iñarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. After collaborating on a trilogy that included the aforementioned films and "21 Grams," the pair have parted ways and will be pursing their next projects separately.

The piece, titled "Rencores Perros" (roughly, "Resentful Dogs"), digs up a few interesting details about the much-reported falling out. Bruised egos over disputed writing credits clearly factored in the split between these two alpha males. But after making three films together in seven years, maybe they simply were ready to untie the leash.

Posted by Reed Johnson in Mexico City

Teachers' strike in Argentina
A local protest over teacher salaries in the city of Neuquen, Argentina,turned into a one-day national teachers' strike Monday.

Last week, a policeman shot a tear-gas canister from close range at one of the protesting teachers, killing him. Roads into the city, about 650 miles southwest of the capital, Buenos Aires, have been blocked by protestors since the death, which shocked the nation.

The English-language Buenos Aires Herald carries the story, but Clarin in Spanish offers broader coverage.

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan Times Foreign Desk

Dudamel a daring choice for LA Phil
The naming of the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel to replace Esa Pekka Salonen as LA Philharmonic music director in 2009 is surprising only in its timing.

Both Salonen and former LA Phil general manager Ernest Fleischmann helped discover Dudamel by judging him the winner of a 2003 German conducting contest and have been effusive in their public praise as Dudamel's international career has skyrocketed ever since.

The daring choice by LA Phil management was prompted by indications that another major orchestra would have grabbed him had they not. Only 26, the Venezuelan has maintained his poise leading the world's great orchestras since bursting on the scene, while impressively establishing rapport and credibility with orchestra players at every turn.

Dudamel is expected to build both generational and cultural bridges to LA Phil audiences, another key element in the selection.

Posted by Chris Kraul Bogota Bureau Chief

What to do with drug money
And for those of you curious about what happened to the $207 million in cash found in Mexico City in the biggest haul of drug cash in history Recently, under heavily armed guard, the money was transferred from Mexican police facilities to the Bank of the Army, the most protected bank in the country.

Excelsior reports that the money will earn 7.63% interest during the year or so it will take for the feds to formally approve its confiscation by the government.

If the Asian-Mexican family that owns the home is found not guilty, it gets all $207 million back with the interest. If the defendants are guilty, the money will be divided three ways among the Mexican health system, its judicial system, and the security agencies responsible for the haul.

Excelsior recently ran a long profile of the alleged mastermind behind the methamphetamine-producing ring, Zhenli Ye Gon, a naturalized Mexican of Chinese descent.

On the surface, he ran a legitimate chemical company. He was either a "cold-hearted" boss who mistreated his employees, or a kind man of "simple" values. He and his wife - a Mexican of Japanese heritage who was arrested in the bust - had lived in a mansion in Lomas de Chapultepec since 2005. Their kids attended an exclusive Mexico City school.

Zhenli Ye Gon remains a fugitive.

Posted by Hector Tobar in Mexico City