News, links and observations about Latin America from Times correspondents

Posted in Latin America | 08-Jul-07 | Source: Los Angeles Times

Murder by numbers in Mexico

The Mexican newspaper Milenio on Monday published an unofficial tally of the number of drug-related killings in Mexico for the first six months of the year: 1,455.

The Mexican government doesn’t compile murder statistics, at least not for public consumption. So newspapers keep their own count. Last year, El Universal newspaper reported 1,003 killings for the first half of 2006.

Milenio broke down the statistics by state, showing that the Pacific Coast states of Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacan and Baja California to be the most dangerous. Each had more than 100 killings this year. Check out their website before planning that south-of-the-border trip this summer.

Posted by Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez in Mexico City

It's PAN's bread, Mexican drug suspect says

Remember that $205 million seized from a Mexico City home in March?

A lawyer for the Zhenli Ye Gon, the fugitive owner of the home, sent a letter to the Mexican Embassy in Washington saying the cash was illegal campaign funds for the ruling National Action Party, PAN, the Associated Press reports.

"This affirmation is not only false, it is ridiculous," the attorney general's office said in a statement responding to the letter.

Mexican officials believe Ye Gon was trafficking in pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in methamphetamine. They said the attorney was "looking for an arrangement that would benefit his client."

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan in Los Angeles

Rainbows in the Zocalo

Mexicans might march to different drummers, but they always seem to end up in the same place, parading past the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace in Mexico City’s sprawling central plaza, known as the Zocalo.

On Saturday, thousands of men and women joined in a spirited gay pride parade that snaked through crowds of supporters and curious passers-by on the narrow downtown streets leading to the Zocalo.
Maybe it’s the country’s conservative, some would say repressed, culture that fueled the joyous Bacchanalian atmosphere.

The parade’s unofficial theme was Sal Del Closet, get out of the closet. Trucks towed flatbeds filled with men stripped to the waist, some in thongs and loin-cloths, others clad in wedding gowns or costumed as fairies, butterflies and angels.

There was a giddiness among the couples making out for the crowds, the kind of show that’s long lost its shock for most Americans. Stereos rigged on the floats blasted Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” as if it were 1978, and heartbreak still the worst consequence of broken love affairs: “I will survive as long as I know how to love, I know I will stay alive.”

Posted by Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

Racy cartoons irk Chile's president

In slightly more than 15 months in office, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has suffered violent student protests, a botched public transportation plan, plummeting poll ratings and the hospitalization this month of her eldest daughter, Francisca Davalos, 23, with a blood clot on her brain.

La Presidenta also had to scurry off a stage the other day with a stomach bug, and the details of the offending meal and her subsequent trips to the lavoratory were chronicled in the press.

“El menú that knocked out Michelle,” read the headline in Las Ultimas Noticias, a Santiago daily.

But a cheeky animated comedy show, ``Nada Que Ver,’’ [Nothing to Do With It], which airs on the Sony Entertainment channel in Latin America, may mark the low point for Chile’s first woman president.

Las Ultimas Noticias noted in its cover Wednesday, the politically incorrect program was especially brutal in its depiction of Bachelet. The irreverent episode lampoons an imaginary ``summit’’ of Latin American leaders..

Bachelet, cheerily serving empanadas from a tray, draws sundry sexist barbs.

Things get worse. In a skit called “Kofi Time,” former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan gets a bit suggestive with Bachelet.

Other Latin American notables, including the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, are set to appear in future episodes of the series, TV execs tell the Santiago daily El Mercurio.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Santiago, Chile

Fujimori vies for immunity in Chile

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, facing extradition to Peru on human rights and corruption charges, has unveiled his latest stay-out-of-jail card: He’s running for senate. In Japan.

``I want to use my experience as president during 10 years to work in favor of Japan in the world,’’ Fujimori told Japanese television in much-quoted comments in Santiago, Chile, where he is free on bail awaiting a decision in the extradition case.

If elected to the Japanese senate next month, Fujimori could claim diplomatic immunity, and theoretically be allowed to return to Japan, where he remains popular.

Fujimori's exit from Chile would alleviate a big irritant for both Chilean and Peruvian authorities. Peruvian President Alan Garcia, in particular, is said to dread the prospect of having a major opposition leader jailed and tried on his watch. "El Chino" as Fujimori is known, still has a near-fanatical following in Peru.

Human rights activists argue that Fujimori should face justice for alleged abuses committed in Peru during his turbulent decade as president, which ended in 2000.

Fujimori, a son of Japanese immigrants who holds Japanese citizenship, is likely to be ordered extradited to Peru in coming weeks, officials say. Months of appeals are expected to follow. Experts were skeptical that Fujimori’s novel bid for diplomatic immunity would head off extradition. But the flamboyant Fujimori has seldom been predictable.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Santiago

Frida Kahlo still stirs controversy in Mexico

Looks as if Frida Kahlo, one of the Modern era’s most enigmatic artists, has been keeping a few more mysteries tucked inside her tehuana outfits.

Since opening in Mexico City two weeks ago, the massive exhibition honoring the ever-popular painter has been drawing overflow crowds, critical praise and controversy. On Monday, the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma published a story in which Raquel Tibol, a respected art critic and author of a new biographical study of Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, raised questions about the authenticity of two of the works in the Kahlo restrospective at the Palace of Bellas Artes.

One of those works, a portrait of one of Kahlo’s first lovers, Alejandro Gómez Arias, which she painted in 1928, reportedly was discovered in a piece of furniture by his heirs after his death in 1990. Gómez Arias was riding with Kahlo during the fateful bus accident that fractured her spine.

The painting was included in the large Kahlo show hosted by the Tate Modern in London in 2005. Tibol has challenged the provenance of that work as well as an undated drawing, “Portrait of Isolda Pinedo Kahlo.”

“I consider that they don’t correspond to the hand of Frida,” Tibol is quoted as saying in Reforma. But two of the exhibition’s curators have countered that the disputed works come from respected collections and that their authenticity is supported by documentary evidence.

Posted by Reed Johnson in Mexico City

Chileans bemoan globalized revolution

The political center-left has held office in Chile for 17 years, since the end of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But many on the left are disenchanted with a corporate-friendly government firmly dedicated to free trade and warm relations with Washington.

Adding his discontent this week was the septuagenarian Carlos Altamirano, an ex-senator and key ally of the late President Salvador Allende, ousted in Pinochet’s 1973 coup and widely regarded as a martyr of the left.

Lamented Altamirano in the Santiago daily Las Ultimas Noticias: ``The revolution of wine and empanadas of Allende has been transformed into a revolution with the taste of Coca-Cola and the flavor of McDonald’s.’’

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Santiago, Chile

Mexico City betting on a flush

Mexican President Felipe Calderon warned the mayor of Mexico City this week that the capital could be a rainstorm away from the worst floods in its history. Not good news, given the four-month-long rainy season just started.

Runoff and sewage from 20 million-plus metropolitan residents compete for space in the valley’s aging drainage system. When clogged sewer pipes can’t swallow fast enough, street drains spit up a noxious menudo that flood gutters and intersections.

The national water agency is warning that a major failure of the city’s deep drainage system, a 20-foot wide tunnel built in the 1970s, could cause flooding as high as 16 sickening feet in the historic downtown and at the airport.

The looming disaster carries the stench of politics. Calderon and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard represent opposing parties of the political right and left, respectively. Public works are a local expense, allowing Calderon to point out the obvious at little cost to him.

Of course, Calderon and his family also live in town, albeit on higher ground than Ebrard, who lives in the lowland neighborhood of La Condesa.

Ebrard shot back that his administration is building four new drainage pumping plants that will allow maintenance crews better access to the deep drainage system by November. After the rains.

Posted by Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez in Mexico City

Panama tells yanks 'thanks but no thanks.'

Not so fast. The U.S. State Dept. was set to sell its 1930s-era Panama City embassy and clear around $14 million until the government of President Martin Torrijos reminded the gringos that they didn’t own the property.

Panama insists it leased the bay-front parcel in 1938 for 999 years. U.S. lawyers are reviewing the transaction. The new U.S. embassy being built in the former canal zone will be ready for occupancy this summer.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Panama

Teflon Traad no longer slick in Panama

Many Panamanians are riveted to the case of Ricardo Traad Porras, the former head of the equivalent of Panama’s coast guard, who was arrested last month on charges of "illegal enrichment" related to the guard's seizure of a rust-bucket merchant ship carrying cocaine last year.

Authorities say Traad, who had come to be known as "Teflon Traad," sold the scrap iron cargo that was aboard the ship, and pocketed the proceeds. They also suspect he found another stash of cocaine aboard the vessel, and sold that.

A witness in the case testified this month that Traad also alerted traffickers to impending raids and tipped them off about the location of anti-narcotics patrol boats.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Panama

Former Mexican governor calls in from prison

Former Mexican governor and accused cocaine kingpin Mario Villanueva called The Los Angeles Times Mexico City bureau from prison Tuesday to set the record straight: 'I didn’t do it' was the gist of the nearly two-hour conversation.

Federal prosecutors in New York allege Villanueva used his power to protect smugglers moving 200 tons of cocaine in the late 1990s while governor of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun and other beaches of the so-called Mayan Rivera. He fled authorities shortly before leaving office and disappeared for two years.

“Once they declared me a fugitive, I finally understood it all,” said Villanueva. “They wanted to wait until I left office, when my [prosecutorial] immunity expired, and then arrest me. It was then I decided to stay in hiding.”

But Villanueva was caught and served six years in prison on a money laundering conviction. He was re-arrested last week about a minute after his release. Mexican authorities are expecting he’ll be extradited to the United States for trial. New York federal prosecutors want to put him in prison for life.

“Am I afraid of being extradited? No,” said Villanueva, 58, who explained the millions of dollars he socked away in Swiss bank accounts as the legitimate proceeds of a life of public service and entrepreneurship, not to mention an inheritance.

Prosecutors allege Villanueva was paid $500,000 per shipment of cocaine.

“I’d love the opportunity to prove my case before a U.S. judge. However, I do think it’s unfair to extradite me on drug trafficking charges. I’m completely innocent,” Villanueva told the Times.

Posted by Carlos Martinez and Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

Argentina comes to play

Argentine sports fans are savoring a string of recent international sports triumphs, even as the “Argentine Legion” of tennis stars has dropped from the top 10.
First came the NBA championship of the San Antonio Spurs, practically a home team with its two Argentine luminaries, Emanuel “Manu” Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto.
Then Angel “Pato” Cabrera defeated Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open.

On Ginobili’s popular website, fans noted that the U.S. magazine Sports Illustrated featured on its cover a photo of five Spurs, bookended by the two Argentines, and a headline announcing Cabrera’s victory.

But the biggest triumph of all came Wednesday evening [June 20], when Boca Juniors won the Copa Libertadores, the region’s most important club soccer tournament, defeating the Brazilian squad, Gremio, 2-0, in Porto Alegre. Netting the two goals was Juan Román Riquelme, the talented but erratic playmaker who is back on the Argentine national squad after resigning following criticism of his play in last year’s World Cup in Germany.

Boca’s latest championship can’t hurt the political aspirations of Mauricio Macri, the club president, who leads in polls for Sunday’s mayoral elections in Buenos Aires.
Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires

Mexican artists defend whistle blower

Is Mexico soft on alleged pedophiles?

If you believe journalist and human rights advocate Lydia Cacho, the answer depends on the purported offender. Cacho is the Mexican writer and women’s shelter director who in 2005 published a no-holds-barred exposé of the child sexual-abuse and pornography mafias in Cancun, whose image as a tourist paradise of white sand beaches and cheap tequila masks serious criminal activity.

Among the more shocking accusations in her book “The Demons of Eden: The Power That Protects Child Pornography” was Cacho’s rap on Mexican blue jeans entrepreneur Kamel Nacif for supposedly using his political clout to protect his friend, the alleged child molester and sex-ring operator Jean Succar Kuri, a Cancun hotel boss.

Nacif accused Cacho of defamation, formerly a criminal offense that could be brought even if the “defamatory” allegations were factually true. (The law has since been changed.) Human rights advocates were outraged when in December 2005 Cacho was seized by police and driven 950 miles to the Mexican state of Puebla and put in jail, where she says she was threatened with torture and death. She was released following an international uproar.

Then two months later, recordings turned up on Mexico City radio stations, allegedly of Nacif thanking Puebla state governor Mario Marín while the latter appeared to boast that he had engineered Cacho’s detainment and harrassment. Marín has admitted the remarks were his, but says they were taken out of context.

What Cacho's adversaries apparently didn’t realize is that she has some friends in high places, too. A group of Mexican intellectuals and artists, including the film directors Alfonso Cuarón and Luis Mandoki, this week ran advertisements in Mexican newspapers in support of Cacho and the case she has brought against Marín, which now has reached the Mexican Supreme Court.

“This case is crucial to the country,” the ad reads, in part. “What is at stake here is the knowledge, once and for all, of whether we Mexican citizens have any chance that the State will protect us from criminals who ally themselves with public servants....”

Meanwhile, Cacho this spring was honored by the U.S. State Department as one of eight “Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery.”

Posted by Reed Johnson in Mexico City

In Mexico City, driving like a Chilango gets expensive

Many of you may remember our story on how perilous it is to drive in Mexico City, a metropolis without apparent traffic laws or anyone willing to enforce them.

This week, the governments of Mexico City’s Federal District and of the surrounding State of Mexico released the New Metropolitan Traffic Code. The new code aims to simplify the traffic laws and create new fines. The Mexico City paper El Universal gives commuters a list of 20 Things You Should Know About the New Traffic Code.

Among other things, it creates a new penalty point system: drivers who earn 12 penalty points will lose their licenses for three years. Driving in specially-designated bus lanes will earn the driver a 6-point penalty; driving while talking on a cellphone or listening to an Ipod will be a 1-point penalty.

New fines are established for bad behavior: running out of gas (and blocking traffic, a common Mexico City faux pas) will cost you the equivalent of $25. An illegal U-turn will be punished with a fine of about $100.

Will such new measures actually improve driver behavior? On the El Universal bulletin board, some drivers are hailing the new laws, but many think the only people who will benefit are corrupt traffic cops, who will demand higher bribes. One poster asked: What would a Mexican rather pay: 1,000 pesos for making a U-turn in a prohibited place, or a bribe of 100 or 200 pesos to the police officer so he doesn’t give you a ticket?

Posted by Hector Tobar in Mexico City

BOLIVIA: The highs and lows of futbol

Afraid of heights?

Not Bolivian President Evo Morales, the world’s leading aficionado of high-altitude fútbol.

Morales is furious that FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, decided to ban international matches above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). FIFA cited health and competitive factors.

The ruling sparked outrage in fútbol-crazed Andean nations, where thin-air cities such as La Paz, Bogotá, Quito and Cuzco have gotten a red card. Altitude has long been a home-field advantage against visitors from low-lying soccer powers Brazil and Argentina. FIFA this week raised the ceiling to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), but that wouldn’t much help Bolivia, where the capital, La Paz, and other altiplano cities are higher.

The crusading Morales, an avid sportsman and populist, has organized a series of much-publicized pickup games at increasingly higher venues to demonstrate his chagrin.

The Bolivian president was most recently found kicking a ball around in the snow and ice -- and defying altitude sickness -- at a dizzying elevation of 6,000 meters (almost 20,000 feet) on the flanks of Nevado Sajama, Bolivia’s tallest peak. A military helicopter lifted Morales and others to a point near the pinnacle. Troops helped clear a glaciated pitch and kept vigil to ensure no one slid off into oblivion. El presidente netted the winning goal.

"Where one can make love," declared a fatigued but satisfied Morales, breathing heavily, ``one can practice sport.’’

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires