Month: May 2013




In Mexico City, drum-pounding, shell-shaking Aztec dance troupes have long been a fixture in the zocalo, or central square. Stray dancers even turn up at traffic lights in neighborhoods further afield, performing for tips.

In today’s LA Times, my colleague Hector Becerra reports that Aztec dance troupes have also become a fixture at left-wing political rallies in Southern California. Hector has a little bit of fun dancing around the fact that Aztec culture wasn’t exactly a 21st Century liberal’s paradise. Don Bartletti and Christina House have fun with the photos.

Photo: No one ignores the dancing Aztecs. Crowds press close, pulling out iPhones and cameras. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times / May 1, 2013. Via )


Last weekend, a 34-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico named Amat Escalante won the Best Director prize at Cannes for his movie “Heli,” which Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times’ film critic, described as “a grim look at a society overwhelmed by extreme drug war-related violence.”

It’s the graphic violence in the film that has received the most attention. Escalante has defended his depictions of violence, and has even had to tell the world that he’s not trying to do harm to the Mexican tourist industry (apparently,  a U.S. journalist canceled vacation plans after a screening).

Until its release in the US and Mexico, we have the trailer for “Heli,” to go on. It’s simple, enigmatic, and  violence-free. What it captures is the threat of violence, which is oftentimes more terrifying than the act itself.

In it, a young man, for reasons we don’t know, wordlessly confronts one of the thousands of armed, masked warriors who are a fixture on the landscape of modern Mexico.

Some of the masked men are good guys. Some are bad. Oftentimes, you just don’t know.




Market stall, Mexico City. [RF]


The most dramatic moment of last night’s Mexican soccer championship came when Moises Muñoz, the goalkeeper for the eventual winners, Club America, traveled the length of the field, entered the scrum during a corner kick, and butted in the header, or cabezazo, that put America ahead 2-1 with just moments left in the game. Because each team had scored two goals over the course of two games, there was a period of bonus play (in which neither team scored), and, then, a penalty-kick showdown, which America won in the middle of a pounding rainstorm.

A goalie scoring a goal in soccer is pretty rare; Wikipedia keeps a running list of those goalies known to have done so, including the Brazilian goalie Saulo, who, like Muñoz, headed a corner kick back in 2011.

“While celebrating the goal,” the Wikipedia authors note, drily, Saulo “suffered a concussion which would prevent him from playing for a period.”

So, yeah, it’s a big deal.


The Bible tells us no prophet is accepted in his own land. In Latin America, rock and roll musicians tend to look to the U.S. or U.K. for inspiration. Here in Mexico, that leaves a yawning gulf between homegrown rock and roll, which tends to be polished and slick, and the wild, raw, raucous banda and norteño music that occupies the center of the pop universe.

I’m fascinated as to why that is. Some of it has to do with class divisions: banda and the like are music for the campesinos and the working classes. The derogatory word for such stuff in Mexico is naco, or redneck. Everybody needs something to rebel against, and you’ve got to figure that a lot of Mexican middle-class kids see accordions and tubas as relics of grandpa’s music (or their country cousins’ music), and not part of the new world that they want to construct with their art.

You can’t blame them for it.

But there are also exciting examples in which the worlds collide. I was never really sold on the Nortec Collective, but I appreciate their attempt to fuse techno and norteño music and come up with something new. Monterrey’s El Gran Silencio seemed to buy into the idea of cultural fusion in an earthier, less theoretical way. When they’re on, their mix of dancehall, cumbia and rock and roll is pretty hard to beat.

Are more collisions inevitable? This March, the norteño superstars Los Tigres Del Norte were the headlining act in a Veracruz festival, Cumbre Tajin, that also featured the Pet Shop Boys and Smashing Pumpkins. The crowd, according to one Mexican newspaper, met Los Tigres with a “scream of ecstasy“; I wish I would have been there to take the sociological measure of the screamers: were they indie rock kids? Their parents? Both?

One of the most interesting mix-and-mash, rockstar-meets-naco moments occurred last year, when the Spanish rock star Enrique Bunbury covered the ragged-but-right Colombian vallenato hit “Diario de un Borracho.” Bunbury finds the gothic, Bukowskian strain in the song (not hard to do in a tune about wallowing in one’s own drunkenness), and highlights it with an appropriately Tom Waits-ian makeover.

The result is pretty cool — a spooky bummer of a song, though I think I still prefer Alfredo Gutierrez’ vallenato version. Sometimes you just want the naco.


Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo extradited to U.S.


Originally posted at


Former Guatemala President Alfonso Portillo extradited to U.S.

He’s accused of using U.S. banks to launder millions of dollars in public funds he allegedly embezzled while in office.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
May 24, 2013, 4:58 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was extradited Friday from his home country to the United States, where he faces long-standing charges that he used U.S. banks to launder millions of dollars in public funds that he allegedly embezzled while in office, according to U.S. officials and court documents.

Portillo, 61, served as president from 2000 to 2004, when he is accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars, essentially “converting the office … into his personal ATM,” according to Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney in New York. Bharara issued the statement in January 2010, when the indictment against Portillo was unsealed.

The extradition comes just days after Guatemala’s high court annulled the May 10 genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, Portillo’s onetime political ally, and ordered trial judges to rehear at least part of his case. The two-month, circus-like trial of Rios Montt — and his extreme reversal of fortune at the hands of the Guatemalan judiciary — has raised questions about the strength of a justice system long known for granting impunity to the powerful.

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in a statement hailed Portillo’s extradition as “an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala.”

Portillo won election despite revelations that he had killed two men in Mexico in the early 1980s, slayings he claims were in self-defense. As president, he promised to stand up for the poor. But the indictment alleges that, among other schemes, he diverted $1.5 million meant for a “libraries for peace” program to a Miami bank account.

After his term ended, he moved back to Mexico but was extradited to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges. He beat those charges in May 2011. The country’s high court approved his extradition to the U.S. a short time later.

Guatemalan officials told news media there Friday that the ex-president, who had been fighting the extradition in court, had exhausted his legal options. Portillo’s attorneys argued that they still had challenges pending. In a radio interview Friday, Portillo called his extradition a “kidnapping.”

According to the Associated Press, Portillo had been recovering from surgery in a Guatemalan military hospital. The U.S. Embassy said he was flying to the United States accompanied by a doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist. He was expected to arrive Friday evening in New York.

He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo is escorted by police in Guatemala City before being flown to the U.S. He called his extradition a “kidnapping.” (Saul Martinez, European Pressphoto Agency /May 25, 2013, via Los Angeles Times)


DLT cops

Photo: Police in the Mexican capital, waiting for something to happen. By Mexico City-based photographer Martin de la Torre. See more of de la Torre’s work here and here.




Photo: Mannequins, Mexico City market stall. [RF]


Jose Efrain Rios Montt


Originally posted at

Guatemala full of questions after genocide conviction annulled

It’s unclear what kind of retrial former dictator Efrain Rios Montt will face, or whether the nation’s power brokers played any role in the high court ruling.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
May 21, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — The Guatemalan high court’s decision to annul the genocide conviction of former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt on Tuesday revived questions about his responsibility for the slaughter of some 1,700 ethnic Maya people.

The ruling late Monday, which voided Rios Montt’s May 10 conviction, also raises questions about the kind of retrial he might have and about a judicial system that has long been considered weak, corrupt, prone to impunity and susceptible to pressure from powerful outside forces.

Rios Montt was Guatemala’s ruler for 17 months in 1982 and 1983, one of the bloodiest periods of a multi-decade civil war that pitted Marxist guerrillas against conservative government forces. His dramatic two-month trial focused on the massacre and displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the mountainous Ixil region during that era at the hands of government troops and their supporters.

The three-judge panel that found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity also sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Its decision was cheered by liberals and a number of international human rights groups who described it as an example of a Guatemalan court system capable of doing the right thing.

“The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director atHuman Rights Watch, said in a statement shortly after the verdict. “Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort — the victims, prosecutors, judges and civil society organizations — this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.”

But Monday’s 3-2 decision by the Constitutional Court calls on the trial court to rehear the case from the point at which it stood April 19. The three high court judges who voided the conviction essentially supported lower court rulings that Rios Montt was denied his due process rights when the judges who convicted him briefly ejected his attorney from the courtroom, leaving his defense to a co-defendant’s lawyer for several hours.

It’s also possible the trial will have to begin from scratch, Arturo Aguilar, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email Tuesday.

Aguilar said prosecutors planned to challenge the high court ruling. If they are unsuccessful, the original judges may have to recuse themselves from the case because they have already issued a ruling against Rios Montt, and that would mean a new trial, he said.

Many of the prosecution witnesses during the trial were Ixil Maya who traveled from the remote countryside to Guatemala City to tell horrific stories of torture and killing by government forces.

Aguilar said that requiring such witnesses to testify again would amount to “a re-victimization of the victims.”

“It’s a spectacular logistical challenge. And we will have to confront the challenge of determining which victims and witnesses want to come back to participate,” he said.

Some analysts wondered whether the wealthiest and most powerful forces in Guatemala were manipulating the system.

“The method of avoiding justice in Guatemala has never been exclusively by the use of illegal force,” said Douglass Cassel, a Notre Dame law professor and human rights law expert who has represented victims of Guatemalan violence in the Organization of American States’ inter-American human rights justice system. “The legal systems in many Latin American countries in general, and in Guatemala in particular, for decades have been skewed in favor of the powerful and against the weak.

“In this case, in a very general way, you had enough forces to get a case going and carry it through, but they were up against very well-resourced Guatemalan lawyers who know how to work the system in support of their client.”

Some of Guatemala’s most powerful public voices have criticized the case and the conviction, including the country’s national business council. President Otto Perez Molina, who commanded troops in the area where the massacres occurred, has said that genocide did not occur during the civil war.

Some of Rios Montt’s supporters have contended that the trial was an attempt by the Guatemalan left to seek vengeance against the country’s conservatives.

An editorial in the national newspaper Prensa Libre noted that the high court’s ruling should be viewed as neither a “victory nor a defeat,” but rather an example of the Guatemalan courts defending the rights of the accused.

“The legal battle will resume,” the editorial said, “and it is hoped that the participants … will act without being shown to be partial.”

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: The annulment of the genocide conviction of Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt leaves in question the type of retrial he might face. (Johan Ordonez / AFP/Getty Images / May 10, 2013, via LA Times.)




DSC_0348 DSC_0359 DSC_0351
I met the painter Esteban Patiño by accident. He was loitering outside of the
Salon España, an ancient cantina in the Centro. It was Saturday afternoon, and
it felt like at least half of Mexico City’s 20 million people were sharing the
block with us, shopping and haggling and jostling, moving in and
around us, anonymous and blurred in the day-to-day koyaanisquatsi that is the
way of things here.

“You look lost,” he said.

“I’m just looking at the menu.”

We were speaking English. He told me he was from Medellin, but lived in
Atlanta — Grant Park, in fact, about eight blocks from my old house. Soon we were
inside, drinking beer, then tequila, then beer. He was visiting for a couple a
weeks, he said, and planning to hang out with his girlfriend, who was coming in
town soon from Chicago.

He had already run up a 500-peso bar tab, and he seemed to know everybody in the place. He introduced me to a few of his new Mexican friends. They shrugged their acknowledgement.

There was a soccer game going on a little television over his shoulder. Patiño
said he was bored with Atlanta. Lacked energy. He told me that he couldn’t stand Frida
Kahlo: “So you painted your spine to show you are in pain. Please.”

He said he liked it here — both Mexico City, and the cantina. He said he had been a bartender before, but he preferred this side. “The happy side,” he called it.

I told him he would be wise to watch himself in this town after dark. He shot
me a look that served to remind me that he was from Medellin. I didn’t
bring it up again.

He talked about John Henderson, the 27-year-old bartender in our Atlanta
neighborhood who was shot to death one late night in January 2009 by some kids in a gang called 30 Deep. We touched on the trouble in Mexico, but Patiño, if I remember right,
returned to the story of John Henderson and the idiots who killed him, and
settled into the thesis of how some idiots are just going to act like idiots.

He showed me the alphabet he had invented. He had had it tattooed on his forearm. He told me it appears in many of his paintings. He told me he was obsessed with the problem of language.

Then the old guy with the electric shock box walked in, and Patiño agreed to be
shocked a few times. The old guy would crank up his box, Patiño would drop the
crackling handles, wincing and hooting, and the old guy would smile dimly. He
charged Patiño 120 pesos for it.

You’ve got to try this, Patiño said. You really have to try it.

Photos: [RF]