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Meet Mexico's 'Twitter terrorists'

Bet you thought you couldn’t go to jail for sending tweets in Mexico. Wrong! A prosecutor in the state of Veracruz has imprisoned two people for tweets they posted last week.

If it sounds hard to believe, there is more. The two citizens, Gilberto Martínez Vera (@gilius_22) and María de Jesús Bravo Pagola (@maruchibravo) face up to 30-year jail terms for “terrorism and sabotage.”

The prosecutor accused the two of sowing panic last week in the district of Boca del Rio, which is part of the port of Veracruz, by suggesting in tweets that gangsters were attacking public schools in the district and killing kids.

There is little doubt that the tweets were alarmist and, by most accounts, false. 

One said: “presumed street vendors gunned down six children between the ages of 13 and 15 en Hidalgo Col.” Another said: “i confirm that in the ‘Jorge Arroyo’ Sch. In Carranza Col. an armed group has taken 5 children. Total psychosis in the zone.” A later tweet said the school was actually named Alfonso Arroyo.

Word of the tweets panicked parents who flocked to pull their kids from school.

But the context goes some way in explaining the case. Veracruz, like many parts of Mexico, is reeling from gunfights, bombings, extortion and beheadings by crime gangs. Journalists are a particular target. Three have been found dead since early June. Click here to see a detailed story I did about two of the cases.

Many Mexicans there feel conventional media no longer provide quick, reliable information because gangsters have terrorized or co-opted journalists. So citizens have turned to social networks. Twitter is full of Mexicans tweeting about the security situation in their cities. Government and law enforcement have gotten into the picture, too. Click here for a story about use of social media by individuals and police across Mexico.

Attacks on schools are not unheard of. A few weeks ago, a commando of gangsters entered a school in Acapulco and took a 15-year-old kid, according to El Universal. His mutilated body turned up later. More recently, a gangster demand that Acapulco teachers turn over half their salaries has shut some 140 schools in the city. Many have yet to start the school year.

In Veracruz state, the two Mexican tweeters have been dubbed “Twitter terrorists,” and are in jail in Coatepec. News reports say prosecutors are investigating 15 other Twitter users in Veracruz for possible charges.

The arrests have spawned a reaction in cybersphere. One user, @giseleando, directed a tweet earlier today to Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte: “to tweet is not a crime, it’s the plain and legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. freedom for @gilius_22 @maruchibravo”

Item: I occasionally put links in blog posts to sources in Spanish. This, certainly, may be irksome to those who don't read Spanish. But I think the need to provide links to those who want more information outweighs the possible annoyance. Let me know if you disagree.


A revolutionary changes stripes

Once-known as the “baby-faced killer,” former Salvadoran guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos has always been an enigmatic figure.

After El Salvador’s guerrilla war ended in 1992, Villalobos found his way to Oxford to take a degree in political science. Since then he has migrated _ both physically and ideologically _ to new realms.

Once a stalwart revolutionary, Villalobos spends his days counseling Latin American leaders on how to defeat organized crime and leftist insurgencies. He was a paid adviser to former President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, and now he works with President Felipe Calderon in Mexico. He is considered an architect of Calderon’s campaign against crime syndicates and, thus, a partial owner of the results. It is not yet a happy story, and it may be why interviews with Villalobos are nearly impossible to get.

For those who read Spanish, there is a fascinating anatomy of Villalobos’s ideological transition in this morning’s La Jornada. Be sure to read the comments section, as well, to get a sense of the disdain that onetime ideological colleagues now have for Villalobos. They view him as a traitor. For non-Spanish readers, check out this feature on Villalobos that my colleague Tracy Wilkinson from the LA Times published last autumn. 

The odyssey of migrants in Mexico

I’ve spent a bit of time in southern Mexico in the last two or three months, doing stories on the southern border and the plight of migrants traversing Mexico. For anyone interested in the matter, here’s a link to a story on the porous southern border. I did another one on Los Zetas have practically taken over the migrant trafficking trade. And a final story yesterday related how many of the migrants in shelters around Mexico are U.S. deportees. Their journey isn’t one to a new land but a return home. 


Mexicans find their inner 'fuuaa!'

Go to any gathering of internet savvy Mexicans, cock back your arm and launch your fist forward while giving a deep gutteral sound, “FUUAA!” You’ll be sure to get a laugh.

“FUUAA!” has become to Mexico what “Wassup!” became to Americans a few years back, a cultural touchstone. And its genesis is uniquely of its time.

It started with a video posted to YouTube of an obviously inebriated vagabond in Nayarit state who begins to ramble on about the psychic powers of “FUA” _ or the Spanish version of “universal applied force.” He offered a drunken explanation of the necessity of ‘fua!’ to release inner strength to overcome any kind of difficulty.

The video was aired on a Nayarit news channel June 27, and has taken off virally since then. The term ‘fua!’ is now so common possible candidates for the 2010 presidential elections are using it. National Action candidate Ernesto Cordero said earlier this month “the force of fua!” would help him reach the presidency.

The concept of ‘fua!’ has now become so widely known that it is parodied on the internet, and a videogame has come out in which ‘fua’ is summoned to fight zombies. Volaris airlines uses the word in a print ad, and characters on soap operas now utter the word in promos to show their characters “give a little extra.”

The latest Chilango magazine carries an interesting reflection on why the new age ramblings of a drunken man in Nayarit have sparked such interest.

“Perhaps a few laugh at the drunk while others roll on the floor in laughter at his Mexican ingenuity,” wrote Rafael Lemus, adding that it is nervous laughter at best because the subject uses a self-help vocabulary well known to the upper classes.

“It is clear that this man, before becoming an unusual figure, is a stereotype: He spends money on self-help magazines, buying books like The Law of Attraction, and believes like millions of other optimists, that no matter how messed up things are, that ‘Yes, we can!’” Lemus wrote.

So, as young Mexicans might say, ‘fua!’


The 'Ladies of Polanco' create a scandal

Check out the behavior of two intoxicated women last weekend who loudly berate a traffic cop who dared stop them in Mexico City's swanky Polanco neighborhood. Warning: If you speak Spanish and are offended by strong language, don't watch.

This video has gone viral in Mexico, where nearly a million people have seen it. The two women have become known as "Las ladies de Polanco." The video has generated all kinds of commentary about the way the rich abuse police officers, and whether the two women set this up as a way to get publicity. 

Turns out one of the women, Azalia Ojeda, is an actress and alumna of the "Big Brother Mexico" television show.

I don't think she'd dare strike a cop like this if she were to travel to the U.S. or Europe.

Item: The actress was called in earlier today to the prosecutors' office to give her version of events. Upon her departure, she made some remarks: "I feel pained by the events that were seen and the way in which I conducted myself at that moment." So, she's staying in the headlines!


The pleasures of Latin cuisine

I know, this video has nothing to do with Mexico. It's about the pleasures of Peruvian food. It's from the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods show. There's really nothing that I find bizarre about Peruvian food, although there is a bit in here about cuy, er, guinea pig. Cuy is a delicacy in the Andes. Peruvians eat 65 million of the animals a year as part of their cuy-sine (groan!). It's high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and also you can raise the animals in a backyard in the city or country. Added benefit: guinea pigs procreate rapidly.

Speaking of food, click here to see my recent story on Mexico's huitlacoche, the fungus that grows in corn that is a delicacy. I love the stuff personally. 

Casino attack was bad, but not 'worst'

The attack on a casino in Monterrey is no doubt hugely tragic but one of the things that has struck me this morning is the constant reference to it as the “worst” attack against civilians in Mexico since 2006.

As of a few moments ago, Gov. Rodrigo Medina confirmed that the death toll from the casino attack stood at 52 people.

Most appeared to have been burned alive when gunmen rushed into the Casino Royale at 3:50 p.m. on Thursday, doused the place with gasoline and lit it on fire.

President Felipe Calderon called it an “aberrant act of terror and savagery.” He's flying to Monterrey at the moment to survey the scene.

Surely, it was. But the idea that it is the worst that has happened since Calderon took office in 2006 is not true. Yet this has popped up repeatedly not only in the Mexican media but also major newspapers in Spain and the United States. See here and here. Mexico's El Univeral calls it "the worst attack against civilians by organized crime in this six-year period."

What about the 72 migrants (mostly Central Americans) mowed down with assault weapon fire in a remote ranch in the same state of Nuevo Leon in neighboring Tamaulipas state almost exactly one year ago? What about the mass graves containing hundreds of bodies in Durango and Nuevo Leon? We don’t know how many of those victims were killed at one time.

What’s different about the casino attack is that it occurred in a relatively wealthy area of Monterrey, the richest city in Mexico. Many of the victims were upper middle class with time to idle in a casino at mid-afternoon on a weekday.

But migrants, who complain of being “invisible” to Mexicans, are people, too. The memory of the 72 who were gunned down last year by Los Zetas should not be forgotten so quickly.


A caravan begins across Mexico

Coming home from the gym this morning, I was stopped at Insurgentes Avenue by what appeared to be a huge security convoy for a visiting dignitary.

As seconds ticked into minutes, I began to wonder who it was. There were at least five pick-ups loaded with police commandos, at least 15 police cruisers, and probably 20 armed motorcycle escorts. Hovering overhead was a police helicopter. Hmm, I thought, very important.

Soon enough I saw that it was not a VIP but VIR – Very Important Relics. The caravan bore the blood and relics of former Pope John Paul II. In the middle of the caravan was a replica of the Popemobile with a photo of John Paul.

John Paul II is widely revered and beloved in Mexico, a nation he visited five times before his passing in 2005.

The traveling display includes a capsule of John Paul II’s blood, taken during an illness; a wax mold of his face; a towel; shoes; a skullcap; a rosary; a papal robe with his seal; a monastic cloak and a chasuble. There are also other personal items like a wash basin and ewer.

These items will tour 13,980 miles across Mexico until the beginning of December.

This morning, police escorted the items from the Apostolic Nunciature (or papal embassy) to the Basilica of Guadalupe, where a Mass is being celebrated. The tour continues to the surrounding state of Mexico before returning to Mexico City’s Cathedral Sept. 5 for display. 


Aeromexico's smuggling problem

The largest commercial airline clearly has a drug problem on its daily route from Mexico City to Madrid.

The papers have been full of the travails of Jesus Garcia Garcia, a co-pilot on the route who was busted last Thursday and charged with smuggling 42 kilograms (92.5 pounds) of cocaine into the country.

Border Flights_Nost Today, Aeromexico announced that it had fired Garcia (about five days too late!).

Garcia is now jailed at the Soto del Real prison 25 miles from Madrid.

The incident is not the first involving Aeromexico flight crews, cocaine and the route to Madrid. Last December, three off-duty crew members taking the flight as tourists were found to have 140 kilos (308.6 pounds) of cocaine in their bags at Barajas airport in Madrid. An Aeromexico ground worker in Mexico City was later arrested and charged with being in on the plot.

These are no small amounts of cocaine packed in toiletry bags. They are heavy suitcases bursting with the stuff. The December bust was the largest seizure of cocaine in the history of the Madrid airport. 

The Excelsior newspaper reports that the co-pilot arrested last week also happened to be on the flight last December with the bigger bust. It said he initially told airport officials in Madrid that he was working undercover to try to bust cocaine traffickers and was following the suspicious suitcase. The narcotics agents didn’t buy the story.

Cocaine sells for $30,000 a kilo in Mexico while the same kilo fetches $70,000 in Europe, the newspaper said.

Aeromexico (that's an AP photo of one of their planes above) has a short statement that it “regrets” the incident. The Secretariat of Foreign Relations has also issued a statement noting the matter, a sign that Aeromexico should do more policing of its employees before other countries take steps that pinch its transportation industry. 


Neither Mexico nor California

I was just in the southern part of the Baja California Peninsula for a few days on a story. I hadn’t been in more than two decades, and even back then I never made it to Los Cabos at the tip.

This time I did. I spent two nights in a hamlet next to the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Reserve, then a night in San Jose del Cabo, the twin city to Cabo San Lucas (where all the movie stars stay.)

Besides the stunning beauty, one overwhelming impression of the tip of Baja is – how Americanized! Virtually all restaurant checks and hotel bills were in dollars. I could ask to pay in pesos but it was a weird feeling to be in Mexico and have to ask to pay in the national currency. English is extremely widely spoken.

Even along the border in places like Nogales and Ciudad Juarez, I never quite got the feeling as in Baja of being in an “in-between” place, neither Mexico nor the U.S.





This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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