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Turtle hatchlings head for the sea

Mexico has released more than 216 million turtle hatchlings into the wild over the past six years, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

Last year alone, more than 41 million hatchlings scurried down beaches along the Gulf, Caribbean and Pacific beaches to try their luck at avoiding ocean predators.

Tortuga1I did a double take when I read the figure at first _ and don’t claim to vouch for it. I do know that marine biologists have told me the survival rate for turtle hatchlings is quite low. All the hatchlings released last year were either olive ridley or kemp’s ridley tortoises, two of the six species that nest on Mexican beaches. 

Mexican conservation workers staff 28 turtle camps and a National Turtle Center in Mazunte, Oaxaca. Here’s the link in Spanish.

Mexico used to be considered a major culprit in culls of sea turtles. In the late 1970s, all turtles in the north of the Gulf of Mexico were on endangered lists, and by 1987 U.S. officials mandated the use of “turtle exclusion devices,” or TEDs, that kept turtles from being snared in shrimp nets.

By 1989, all foreign shrimpers planning to sell shrimp in U.S. markets were also mandated to use the TEDs. Mexican shrimpers were slow to adopt the devices, and as recently as 2010 U.S. inspectors found some shrimpers still were sidestepping their use, leading to a new ban on U.S. imports of wild shrimp from Mexico.



GIs in alleged plot to kill for the Zetas

A U.S. Army first lieutenant and a sergeant are among six people busted over the weekend in a plot to hire themselves out to Los Zetas to kill rival gangsters and provide tactical training.

It’s one thing for Zetas to poach Mexican soldiers. It’s another to get training from renegade U.S. soldiers.

According to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Laredo, Texas, Army 1st Lt. Kevin Corley “offered to provide tactical training for cartel members and to purchase weapons for the cartel under his name.”

Unfortunately for Corley, the people he was dealing with were undercover DEA agents. Corley, the statement says, “mailed an Army tactics battle book to the agents, thoroughly explained military tactics and told undercover agents he could train 40 cartel members in two weeks.”

He later allegedly agreed to “wet work,” or murder-for-hire, and helped arrange transport of 500 pounds of marijuana from Texas to South Carolina.

Earlier this month, Corley met again with the men he thought were Zetas and showed some excitement at the brutality they seemed to want from him against a particular rival:

"Corley allegedly stated he had purchased a new Ka-Bar knife to carve a 'Z' into the victim's chest and was planning on buying a hatchet to dismember the body," prosecutors said in the statement.

To read the U.S. attorney’s statement, click here. The Colorado Springs Gazette said Corley, who was Fort Carson, was discharged earlier this month. The Houston Chronicle says Corley served in Afghanistan in 2010. Also arrested with Corley was Sgt. Samuel Walker, and four other men.


Good news in Central America

A truce between warring gangs in El Salvador seems to be taking hold, dropping the homicide rate markedly. How the truce came about – was there taxpayer money paid off? – is still a mystery.

El Salvador is not the only place where there is good news. Some came from Guatemala as well. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first whiff that something was cooking in El Salvador came March 14 when the digital website elfaro.net reported that authorities had without explanation moved 30 top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 gangs from a top security prison (known as 'Zacatraz') to less secure facilities.

Elfaro.net said the government was in talks with gang leaders to try to lower homicides. Coincidentally, right in mid-March, murders declined from about 13 a day in El Salvador to less than half of that. 

Turns out, elfaro.net’s scoop was true. On Friday, the two rival gangs said they’d signed a truce.

"Considering the pain it causes, to our families and ourselves, we have taken this decision (to call a truce), because we are all aware that many dead are our own," said the statement, which received the endorsement of the Catholic Church.

For more backstory, read this post on another blog. Here's another news story and some analysis.

There remains quite a bit of confusion about how this was brokered, whether it will last, and who is behind recent threats against elfaro.com and its prize-winning editor Carlos Dada. But for Salvadorans, it promises better days for what has been one of the most murderous countries in the world. Even if taxpayer money lubricated the negotiations.

In Guatemala, the U.N.-backed commission against impunity is wracking up a number of victories. On Friday, it helped bring about the arrest of a former national civilian police chief, Marlene Blanco Lapola. She is accused of running a parallel “hit squad” within the police to kill alleged extortionists targeting bus companies. Want to find out which of her former underlings ratted her out? Click here to read account in Spanish.

This is big. It’s sort of like running in the FBI director for operating a crime syndicate on the side. All this is coming under the 10-week-old government of President Otto Perez Molina, who appears to be giving the green light to actions to fight impunity.


Reviewing the quake damage

Among people I know, conversations over the past couple of days always begin with, 'How'd you make out in the quake?' Tuesday's 7.4 magnitude quake was felt particularly strongly in the La Condesa/Roma areas of Mexico City, which are built on shaky subsoil. That is where many of us foreign reporters live. So those of us living on upper floors faced quite a clean up.

At the school bus stop this morning, a neighbor said lots of plaster had fallen off walls in her apartment in the beautiful art deco Basurto Building, and a bar had fallen over in her apartment, smashing numerous bottles. Another friend mentioned this morning that large chunks had fallen from the facade of his building elsewhere in the district.

Our landlord is sending a worker around to examine the cracked and falling plaster in our apartment to see what should be done. Miraculously, a wall of books behind where I was sitting did not fall on me -- perhaps because it is bolted to an outer wall. Interior walls suffered much more damage.

So which are worse -- quakes or hurricanes? I got the following from a friend in Florida, a former Mexico City resident, after my posting on the quake on Tuesday:

Your description of the aftermath was very interesting and brought back memories. Mark will tell you that there was one that was quite strong in 1980-81? and we knew it was serious because our cats were acting so strangely. Everything was swinging and we jumped up (it was early in the morning and we were both there) and stood in the doorway, but then said, "the heck with that! Let's look out the window!" What we saw was the normal, everyday line for milk at the bakery across the street (for some reason milk was in very short supply at that time). People kept their places in line with their feet wide apart for balance as buildings were shedding bits of concrete all around them. I took a picture. The milk line never broke. 

Seriously though, you can't prepare for an earthquake, a fact that I find comforting. It's over before you can think about it and then the damage is done. I'd rather live in an earthquake zone than hearing four straight days of 24/7 coverage of dire discussions about an impending hurricane -- that may or may not hit.

Finding tolerable levels of crime

Do you think this is true?

The dirty secret of Central America is that the region's leadership is not against crime per se. Crime creates employment that governments do not. And tragically, crime and illegality employ the unemployable. Rampant, grotesque violence is what Central Americans oppose.

The quote was printed this morning in the Latin America Advisor, a publication put out by the Washington D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue, and it is from Dr. Maria Velez de Berliner, head of Latin Intelligence Corp.


Today's strong shake in Mexico City

Today's quake occurred just about noon. I was sitting at my desk. Fairly quickly, I joined my news assistant and the housekeeping in running for the door. Instinct took over. We are at the top of a 10-story building. As I looked back from the entrance, unsure whether to plunge down the stairs, I saw these wooden hangings swinging wildly on the wall and heard glasses smashing to the floor in the kitchen. I stayed for a few minutes, trying to calm the news assistant who was upset and sobbing.

I peeked in the kitchen and saw water and shattered glass all over the floor. The water stand that holds the five-gallon jug had toppled over.

Power went out immediately. We went back and peeked over the balcony. Dozens of people were gathered on the street. I gathered my cell phone and saw there was still a signal. We went down the darkened stairwell.

Out on the street, some people were saying the quake measured over 7.0 on the Richter scale. 

I heard an American voice at the entrance to the building. It was a resident of another apartment. We introduced ourselves (oddly, we'd never met). I commented on how he had a flashlight in his hand, and his wife immediately piped up that he was retired Special Forces. I saw he had a backpack on. We talked a bit about what he had in there. I remember some -- passport, batteries -- but the rest was a blur. I just felt under-prepared compared to him had it been a really severe quake. It would be very handy to have a cell phone charger, a water bottle, notebook, snacks, passport and other items in an emergency bag.

Some of my colleagues immediately filed interesting pieces, among them this notebook piece from Sarah Miller Llana of the Christian Science Monitor. I filed a straight news story.

In case the Univision video above is blocked where you are, click here. It is amazing footage that shows the iconic Angel of Independence swaying from the quake.

Before things returned to normal by mid-afternoon, a curious thing happened: The cell phone networks held up for about an hour. But then for the second hour, at least where I was, they collapsed. I couldn't even send text messages. Some of the fallout takes a while to be felt.

By the way, Malia Obama, President Obama's older daughter, was in Oaxaca on her spring break vacation. The quake's epicenter was in Oaxaca. The daughter “is safe and was never in danger,” said the First Lady’s communications director Kristina Schake, according to this news story, which goes on to explain why stories about Malia Obama disappeared from news sites earlier in the week.


Spending a decade or more at college

I admit: It took me five years rather than the conventional four to get my undergraduate degree. I took some time off for reasons that seem quaint in hindsight: I wanted to teach myself how to overhaul a VW engine and wade through James Joyce’s Ulysses. I still don’t know mechanics.

Actually, five years is downright speedy compared to the current crop of presidential candidates in Mexico.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the standard-bearer of the leftist Democratic Revolutonary Party, enrolled as a political science student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1973. He got his degree in 1987, 14 years later.

Josefina Vazquez Mota of the center-right National Action Party took even longer. She enrolled in economics at the Ibero-American University in 1978 and stayed through 1983. However, her senior thesis was not accepted until 1998. So it took her two decades to graduate. See here and here.

The last major candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, seems to have been a diligent student, enrolling at the Panamerican University in 1984 and graduating in 1988.

The latest primitive meth lab


Mexico’s navy sent around these photos earlier today of a rustic drug lab foundin the woods along the highway leading from Sinaloa to Mazatlan, the Pacific port.

What struck me about the photos is how primitive the lab looks.

Presumably it was a meth cooking operation. The navy said its unit discovered a distillery, an oven, an industrial oxygen tank, a cooler, and bags or containers of caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, ethyl alcohol, tuolene, and something called tartaric acid.

The lab contrasts with other underground labs discovered last year with orderly, industrial meth kitchens that wouldn’t look out of place in any modern chemical factory.



Mexico's huge bank fees

If you ever wonder why Banamex, the No. 2 bank in Mexico, is so key to the fate of parent company Citigroup, I can explain.

In recent years, Banamex has been the source of anywhere between 11 and 15 percent of the global profits of Citigroup. Why? Because Banamex nicks clients with fees far higher than the global average.

My wife and I recently miscalculated and I wrote a check with insufficient funds on our Banamex account. The bank has been unable to provide me with a monthly statement since last August but they very quickly sent a note about the charges I had incurred for the overdraft: 642.72 pesos. That is more than $50.

According to this website, overdraft fees in the United States range from $10 to $38, with a median fee of $27.

Of course, Banamex is not alone in charging Mexicans far more than prevailing global rates. Look at cellular phone and cable TV rates, airfares from Aeromexico, or any of a range of services offered by companies with a strong market share. In Mexico’s sclerotic political system, politicians gain more by favoring powerful companies than average people. 


Will Ferrell and his 'Mexican' movie

This is a very funny clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live the other night, nearly all en Espanol with English subtitles. What makes it hilarious is when Diego Garcia Luna, Will Ferrell's co-star in the upcoming movie, Casa de mi Padre, pops up in the audience and starts reaming Ferrell out. The subtitles give no hint of his colorful language.

Here's more about the appearance of Ferrell and Garcia Luna on the show from a story by Univision:

The forthcoming Casa de mi Padre centers on Armando (Ferrell), who has spent his entire life on his father’s ranch and falls for his brother Raul’s (Diego Luna) hot fiancée (Génesis Rodríguez). Life becomes even more tangled for the trio after they find themselves warring with Onza, Mexico’s most feared drug lord (Gael García Bernal).

Before viewers get hot and bothered about the movie, it’s important to note that it’s meant to poke fun at Americans’ stereotypical views of Mexicans, and vice versa. It’s also a satire of telenovelas, poor acting skills, and filmmaking in general (though Luna has jokingly referred to it as more of a “tribute” than a satire in junket interviews).

One could take offense at the English comedians trying to speak Spanish on nighttime network television. But on perusing the posts on the internet, Mexicans appeared to like it. For one thing, it shows the penetration of Spanish in U.S. culture. Many English speakers get enough Spanish to understand the jokes with the bad subtitles.

The movie opens Friday in the States. I bet it might be a hit in Mexico, too. Diego Garcia Luna is a huge star here, and they'll go see the movie because of him. Many won't know who Will Ferrell is.



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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