Month: April 2014


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The Museo Del Estanquillo, in downtown Mexico City, has a jaw-dropping exhibit up right now called “Illustrated Mexican Sheet Music: An Unheard Treasure.” Many of the examples are from the 1920s or thereabouts, and show how hard Mexico fell for the art deco style, the remnants of which one can still see in the architecture in neighborhoods like Condesa. These sheet music covers offer a lesser-known example of the Mexican take on deco, and amount to a stunning display of graphic (and often, erotic) sophistication.

A few more:

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Originally posted at

Mexican vigilante leader refuses government order to disarm

MEXICO CITY—A key leader of the vigilante “self-defense” movement in Mexico’s Michoacan state said Monday that he was refusing a government order to disarm, and roadblocks to keep out federal forces charged with taking away the vigilantes’ weapons were reported in numerous cities.

Vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles said in a radio interview that the government had not sufficiently pacified the state. “Armed and masked” drug cartel members began appearing in the streets just hours after the government’s announcement last week declaring it was time for the vigilantes to disarm, he said.

“For that reason we are reinforcing our trenches,” Mireles said. “We are going to lay down the arms when the federal government and the state have finished the work of cleaning the state of Michoacan of criminals.”

In a number of Michoacan cities over the weekend, residents supporting the vigilantes protested the government plan to send home the so-called autodefensa militias, which have portrayed themselves as protectors of the people against the depredations of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

“No to the disarmament of the autodefensas,” read one typical sign waved by a protester in the municipality of Mugica.

Mexican federal authorities had declared in a news conference Thursday that it was time for the vigilante groups to disarm, arguing that the government had arrested or killed a number of key Knights Templar leaders.

The newspaper Reforma reported Monday that 27 highways had been blocked Sunday by self-defense groups to prevent military convoys from entering certain areas.

In an interview with The Times on Monday, a federal government official charged with resolving the Michoacan crisis said there was “much collaboration” between the vigilantes and the government: “The majority of the leaders of the self-defense groups in Tierra Caliente agree with the disarming. In the next few days these actions will continue until every one of these groups have turned in their weapons.”

When asked what would happen to those vigilantes who refused, the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, replied: “They have to turn in [their weapons]. Period…. There is no other option.”

Reestablishing the government’s monopoly on the use of force in Michoacan has been one of the enduring challenges for the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Until recently, the government has worked side-by-side with some of the vigilantes to help cleanse the region of cartel members, even as the integrity of the vigilante movement has been called into question.

Two autodefensa leaders have been arrested in connection with separate homicide cases, and the Mexican attorney general has said that at least some of the vigilante weapons were supplied by a rival drug cartel.

At least two people were killed in January when Mexican federal authorities clashed with recalcitrant self-defense group members in an effort to disarm them.

The federal government has dealt a number of blows to the Knights Templar’s leadership in recent weeks, killing high-ranking members Enrique Plancarte Solis and Nazario Moreno Gonzalez.

The man believed to be the top boss, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, remains at large.

On Saturday, federal authorities detained Michoacan’s interior minister, Jesus Reyna, after determining that he had “possible contacts with criminal organization,” though Reyna has not been charged with a crime.

 Photo: Jose Manuel Mireles, a leader of a vigilante self-defense group in Mexico’s Michoacán state, waves during a march in Tepalcatepec to celebrate the first anniversary of the groups’ founding. The groups have been ordered to lay down their weapons. (HECTOR GUERRERO / AFP/Getty Images / February 24, 2014, via LA Times)



Originally posted at

Former Mexican interim governor in embattled state ordered questioned

MEXICO CITY—The former interim governor of Mexico’s troubled Michoacan state, who has been accused by a vigilante “self-defense” group leader of having drug cartel ties, has been ordered to appear before federal prosecutors for questioning, officials said.

Jose Jesus Reyna Garcia, who served as the appointed governor of the western state from April to October of last year, was ordered to the attorney general’s headquarters in Mexico City on Friday afternoon to give testimony as part of a federal investigation, according to a government statement released late Friday night. The statement did not indicate what the investigation was about, nor did it indicate whether Reyna was considered a suspect.

Reyna, who is the state’s interior minister, has strenuously denied drug cartel links. But his order to appear before prosecutors may add a new layer of complexity to the situation in Michoacan, where an uprising by armed citizen militias against a drug cartel called the Knights Templar has resulted in a tangle of accusations, counter-accusations and suspicions about the motives of key actors.

Reyna served as interim governor between April and October of last year, filling in for the then-ailing governor, Fausto Vallejo. He is a member of President Enrique Pena Nieto‘s Institutional Revolutionary Party.

In late July, a prominent self-defense group leader named Jose Manuel Mireles, in a radio interview, accused Reyna of being a Knights Templar member, alleging that Reyna was one of one of a host of corrupt officials who had given the vigilante groups no choice but to rise up and defend themselves.

“In the state of Michoacan, the rule of law does not exist,” Mireles said. “The interim governor is one of the Templars, [and] many of the municipal presidents and municipal police forces in the state, the state police force and the public prosecutors are part of organized crime.”

The state government at the time issued a statement saying it “categorically” rejected the accusations against Reyna.

Questions have also arisen about the motives of the self-defense groups. In January, the Mexican attorney general said that some  were receiving arms from a rival cartel, the Jalisco New Generation, raising the possibility some vigilantes have been fighting a proxy turf war on behalf of the New Generation.

That same month, the newspaper Excelsior reported that Mireles had been arrested in 1988 with 189 pounds of marijuana, and had been sentenced on federal drug charges. Last month, two other Michoacan self-defense group leaders were arrested, each suspected of involvement in separate homicide cases.

By January, the self-defense groups had kicked the cartel out of a number of small towns, and were threatening to start a larger battle with the Knights Templars in one of their strongholds, the city of Apatzingan. The federal government sent in thousands of troops and federal police in an effort to keep the peace. The federal forces, in some cases, ended up collaborating with the self-defense groups to root out cartel members.

The collaboration put the Mexican government in a precarious position, given the lingering doubts about the vigilantes’ motives, and their refusal to lay down their arms.

On Thursday, Mexican federal officials said that it was time for the self-defense groups to disarm, arguing that many leaders of the cartel have been killed or arrested in the federal crackdown.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Photo:  Jose Jesus Reyna Garcia, in an image posted on his Twitter feed–which, understandably, has been quiet for a few days.


Migrant amputees

Originally posted at

Central American amputees, once migrants, seek help in Mexico

A group of men who lost limbs to La Bestia, the freight train migrants ride to the U.S., want Mexico to protect others.

TAPACHULA, Mexico — The last time Norman Varela made an unauthorized crossing into Mexico, he was headed to the United States, in search of a job, riding atop the infamous northbound freight train known as La Bestia — the Beast.

Mexican policemen robbed the Honduran of his savings en route, he said. Later, on the night of Oct. 29, 2005, a rumor spread that more bad men were coming. As Varela made his escape, he ducked under a freight car. It rolled over his right leg, severing it at the knee.

This week Varela, 42, was back in Mexico, this time with crutches and a wobbly prosthesis, accompanied by 14 countrymen whom the Beast had similarly mangled. These hobbled men in sweat-stained T-shirts were no longer in search of the American Dream. For them it was too late.

“Our American Dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Jose Luis Hernandez, who was missing his right leg and arm and three fingers on his left hand.

They were seeking safe passage for the thousands of migrants who keep making the trip.

On March 22, the men had floated across the Suchiate River, the dividing line between Mexico and Guatemala, on inner-tube rafts and promptly demanded a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. They hoped to persuade him to guarantee U.S.-bound Central American migrants unmolested passage along Mexico’s highways, so they would no longer have to sneak onto the roof of La Bestia, and hang on for dear life.

Peña Nieto has not agreed to a meeting with the ragtag crew. But he addressed the issue this week during a meeting in Honduras with President Juan Orlando Hernandez by saying that every migrant passing through Mexico would receive “absolute respect for their human rights.”

Like the United States, Mexico regularly detains migrants who have entered the country illegally. Its southern border, however, passes through territory too rough and wild to be closely monitored. Many migrants manage to make their way to major roads and highways, only to end up arrested at roadblocks. To avoid that fate, some head for the train.

Varela and the others made no secret this week of their presence in Tapachula, a city in Chiapas state near the border with Guatemala, and they benefited from the spotty enforcement of immigration law in Mexico, freely visiting the municipal government headquarters in search of help. A government employee, however, told them that a meeting with the president was “impossible.”

“What’s impossible,” Varela said, “is regrowing a hand or an arm or a leg. It is not impossible to arrange a meeting with a fellow human being.”

The grisly toll in limbs is only one of the prices that unlucky Central Americans pay on their migration through Mexico. Armed gangs rob, rape, kidnap and kill, as do some authorities along La Bestia’s tracks. Thousands of migrants disappear each year. Some who resist their attackers are thrown from the moving train. Other common hazards include misjudging a leap onto the Beast, or falling off while asleep.

La Bestia, also known among migrants as “The Train of Death,” is actually a series of freight trains that run on a network of rails extending north and south throughout Mexico. In Chiapas, many migrants climb aboard in the city of Arriaga. If they make it to Lecheria, on the outskirts of Mexico City more than 400 miles away, they might continue on tracks that lead to the border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua or Tamaulipas.

From Lecheria, the Pacific rail route extends more than 2,500 miles and the journey can take two weeks or more, as migrants wait for the right northbound train or slip away for days at a time to hide from authorities.

The risks are well-known in countries like Honduras. But so, too, is misery at home: According to the World Bank, 3 in 5 Hondurans were living below the poverty line in 2010.

And so the migrants, including women and children, continue to float across the Suchiate and jump the train, dreaming of San Diego or San Antonio or Denver. The Mexican government estimates that 300,000 Central Americans attempt the trip each year.

Among those, the Mexican government recorded 373 cases of amputations from 2002 to 2011. But many people believe the number is higher. Varela is the spokesman for a group called the Assn. of Returned Migrants With Disabilities, based in El Progreso, Honduras. The group estimates that 450 to 500 amputee migrants live in Honduras.

Once injured, the migrants are usually shipped back to their countries, where they had struggled to find work when they were able-bodied and, they say, social services are scant.

Varela, a former golf caddy, said he occasionally gets hired to remove untreated wastewater with a bucket in his northern Honduran municipality of San Manuel. He said he was five months behind on rent. It’s difficult for him to face his wife and four children without being able to properly provide for them, he said.

He acknowledged that it was desperation more than common sense that drove him back across the border to Mexico.

Varela and his companions turned to Tapachula’s Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the Poor and the Migrant, a spartan building dedicated to sick and injured travelers, as they tried to decide whether to press on and make their voices heard amid the din of Mexico City.

All of the men had been disfigured on trips in search of work in the United States. Hernandez, the double amputee, a handsome, athletically built 28-year-old who serves as president of the disabled migrants group, said his parents were supporting him in Honduras, but just barely. He said he had been attacked by a gang on La Bestia while traveling through Mexico in 2005. Later, exhausted, he fell from the train and onto the tracks, where his limbs were caught by the wheels of the train.

“We came here,” he said, “to demand that we not be mistreated.”

Benito Murillo, 43, said his wife left him when he returned to Honduras eight years ago missing his right arm and leg. “We want the Mexican authorities to know the reality we’re living,” he said.

Murillo added that there was also a spiritual reason for the trip. “We left parts of our bodies here. I buried my leg and my arm here.”

The volunteer-run Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd was founded in 1990 and serves about 700 immigrants per year. Some of the men in Varela’s group had recuperated there after their injuries and were returning for the first time in years.

The rules of the place, tacked to a wall near the entrance, illustrate the perils of the migrants’ journey: If you are discovered to be a coyote — a human trafficker — you will be kicked out, says one sign. Another says to check your weapons with the administration: “They will keep it for you and return it to you when you leave.”

Varela, Hernandez and the other men mingled with men who had only recently become amputees. Josue Romero Diaz, 20, listened to the older men talk as he lounged on a beat-up sofa, the stump of his right leg wrapped in bandages. He had been riding on La Bestia just a few days earlier when he dozed off and fell. It could have been worse: His father, Armando Romero, who was traveling with him, showed a folded-up newspaper with a photo of two men dead by the tracks. They had been traveling with these men, the elder Romero said.

The article said authorities in Veracruz thought the men had been pushed from the moving train.

Varela’s group had had some success this week in Tapachula, holding a news conference and generating some coverage in the Mexican press, but they were restless.

Some of them hailed two dilapidated cabs Tuesday afternoon and headed to the local offices of the Mexican government’s immigration department. They wanted to see whether an arrangement could be made for the group to travel to the capital without being arrested for violating Mexican immigration law.

At the security gate, Varela related his story to a baffled security guard, who told him to wait.

And so he waited in the Chiapan heat, balancing on his crutches. If the men couldn’t be guaranteed safe passage to Mexico City, Varela said, with an official government letter allowing them to ride the bus, they might try to get to the capital the way they knew best.

They would ride there on La Bestia.

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

Photo: Norman Varela, right, prepares to stand at the Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the Poor and the Migrant in Tapachula, Mexico. He and several other amputees hoped to somehow meet with Mexico’s president to discuss the risks that Central American migrants face as they pass through the country. (Richard Fausset / Los Angeles Times / April 1, 2014)



Originally posted at

 Mexico calls on self-defense groups to join police or disarm


MEXICO CITY — Citizen “self-defense” groups that have emerged to fight off a ruthless drug cartel in the state of Michoacan should take steps to join the government security apparatus or disarm, Mexican officials said Thursday.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said during a press conference in Morelia, the state capital, that government forces have gained the upper hand since thousands of troops and police officers swarmed the western state and arrested several “important criminals” associated with the Knights Templar drug cartel.

The government’s most recent quarry was Enrique “Kike” Plancarte, who was fatally shot Monday by Mexican marines in the neighboring state of Queretaro. Another top capo, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed in a shootout with government forces March 9.

But the presumed operational leader of the group, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, remains at large.

“We have delivered results,” Osorio Chong said. The self-defense “groups that want to help will be able to do so, and those who do not wish to will have to return to their day-to-day activities.”

Alfredo Castillo, head of a special commission formed to solve the Michoacan crisis, said the government would continue to sign up self-defense members willing to become part of a federal Rural Defense Corps, under military command.

Any others will be arrested if found to be carrying arms, he warned. In coming weeks the government will take down barricades erected by the self-defense groups at the entrance of many towns in the agricultural region known as the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, he said.

The government statements Thursday represent the latest move in the complicated pas de deux between the Mexican government and the vigilante groups, whose emergence last year has proved to be an embarrassment for the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

In January, Osorio Chong said there would be “no tolerance” for anyone carrying unauthorized weapons in Michoacan. But the government, perhaps fearing public backlash from an armed clash between security forces and vigilantes, eventually allowed the groups to keep their weapons and sought their help in identifying suspected cartel members.

The self-defense groups have been suspected of fighting a proxy war for a rival drug cartel. Two prominent self-defense leaders were arrested last month, each suspected of involvement in separate homicide cases.

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

Photo: Federal police guard the streets as members of a vigilante group observe them in the village of La Ruana, in Mexico’s Michoacan state, March 11, 2014. (European Pressphoto Agency, via LA Times )

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