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Isolated and threatened, a northern Mexican mining town fights for survival

April 24, 2015

Exploited by business owners, threatened by drug cartels and abandoned by the authorities, the inhabitants of Cloete, a tiny mining town in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, are living precariously.

“What you are experiencing is the result of human evil, of abuse, political alliances and economic power,” said Raúl Vera López, the Bishop of Saltillo, at the inauguration of the humble Familia Pasta de Conchos offices in Cloete on Sunday.

The Familia Pasta de Conchos is a human rights organization that advocates on behalf of local mining families. It was founded in 2006, after an explosion at the nearby Pasta de Conchos coal mine left 65 workers dead.

Nine years on from that disaster, Cloete’s 4,000 residents continue to fight for the survival of their community. Another 106 workers have died in the years since – the result of “poor hygiene and safety standards, corrupt inspectors and negligence at all three levels of government,” according to Familia Pasta de Conchos.

Now Cloete itself is at risk, as local officials permit shady mining firms to destroy vital infrastructure – including roads, rivers, drainage and electricity pylons – in order to extract more coal from beneath the town. The mining firms were even on the point of destroying several homes until Familia Pasta de Conchos opened its office in the town in a bid to stop them.

“People didn’t used to speak out because they were really scared. They were threatened and beaten, and they still receive threats, but they’re daring to speak out now,” Cristina Auerbach, a human rights advocate from Familia Pasta de Conchos, told Latin Correspondent

Click here to read this story in full.

Higher education in northern Mexico is suffering at the hands of organized crime

April 17, 2015

The Mexican government’s inability to maintain law and order is having a major impact on access to higher education in the drug violence-ravaged northeast of the country.

According to a report by Mexico’s Proceso magazine, a wave of extortion, kidnappings and even killings of university students by vicious drug cartels in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila has forced the closure of several universities.

The breakdown in security has also fueled a major exodus, with thousands of students leaving the region to complete their studies in safer parts of Mexico or across the border in the United States.

For the last two years, the Gulf Cartel and its fearsome former armed wing Los Zetas have demanded that universities in Tamaulipas pay them 100,000 to 350,000 pesos (US$6,500 to $22,900) per month in return for “protection,” Proceso reported.

The extortion has led to the closure of two campuses run by the private University of the Valley of Mexico (UVM), while Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce has denounced threats against another 18 universities in the region…

Click here to read this article in full at Latin Correspondent. 

How the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is terrorizing the people of western Mexico

April 11, 2015
A bullet punctured the windshield of a vehicle in the community of Ocotlán, Jalisco, after a March 19 shootout that left 11 people dead. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas/VICE News)

A bullet punctured the windshield of a vehicle in the community of Ocotlán, Jalisco, after a March 19 shootout that left 11 people dead. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas/VICE News)

Over a breakfast of chilaquiles and coffee at a traditional restaurant in Guadalajara, a tequila producer named Eduardo Pérez recently described how suspected members of the city’s dominant drug cartel demanded extortion payments in order to keep himself and his business “protected.”

“They warned me that if I didn’t pay, then I’d be in trouble,” Pérez told VICE News. “I changed my phone number and everything, but the extortion continued.”

For almost two years, Pérez paid his extortionists 200,000 pesos each month (about $13,400) to avoid repercussions. He was eventually forced to close his business because of the payments to suspected extortionists linked to the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.

The drug gang is currently muscling itself into headlines and onto the country’s security agenda by carrying out ambushes against police forces. The latest attack, on Monday night, left 15 Jalisco state police officers dead, including one female agent.

Two boys pass a bullet-ridden home in Ocotlán. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas)

Two boys pass a bullet-ridden home in Ocotlán. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas)

“You have to pay the famous quotas. If you don’t, then they’ll start to harm you or your business,” said Pérez, who owns a tequila company in Jalisco, one of Mexico’s largest and most important states.

“This isn’t just happening to us,” he added. “It’s happening in all kinds of different industries in this region. It’s really frightening…”

This is the second in a two-part series on the Jalisco New Generation Cartel that I worked on with Mexican journalist Víctor Hugo Ornelas for VICE News. Click here to read part two in full.

Click here to read part one in English o haz clic aquí para leer la primera parte en español. 

Jalisco’s ‘New Generation’ is becoming one of Mexico’s most powerful and dangerous drug cartels

April 8, 2015
A military raid on a Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación safe house in Guadalajara in 2012.

A military raid on a Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación safe house in Guadalajara in 2012.

Cartel gunmen ambushed a state police convoy on a remote stretch of highway in Jalisco on Monday, killing fifteen police officers in the most recent bloody incident to rock the western region of Mexico.

Authorities blamed the ambush on Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, a criminal group that is little known outside western Mexico but which some observers say may be among the country’s most powerful — and deadly — drug cartels today.

Jalisco public security commissioner Alejandro Solorio denounced the ambush as a “cowardly attack,” which occurred in the municipality of San Sebastián del Oeste, a rugged area between the tourist port of Puerto Vallarta and the state capital Guadalajara.

The assailants, who had blocked the highway with burning vehicles to prevent reinforcements from arriving, also shot at the state officers with grenade launchers. They reportedly escaped without suffering casualties.

One female officer was among those killed and five other police were hospitalized with injuries.

Nueva Generación — or New Generation — is just five years old and has been largely overshadowed by Mexico’s more infamous cartels in the country’s soaring drug violence, such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar.

In that time, it has quietly built an extensive criminal empire and now appears to be escalating its conflict with state authorities just two months before the local elections in Jalisco…

This is the first in a two-part series on the Jalisco New Generation Cartel that I’ve been working on with Mexican journalist Víctor Hugo Ornelas for VICE News. Click here to read part one in full.

Businessman claims he was kidnapped for exposing government corruption

April 3, 2015
Alfredo Romero led a march through Guadalajara last week to mark six months since 43 students disappeared at the hands of corrupt police officers in Guerrero.

Alfredo Romero led a march through Guadalajara last week to mark six months since 43 students disappeared at the hands of corrupt police officers in Guerrero.

In a video interview posted on YouTube this week, Mexican businessman Alfredo Romero said he was kidnapped for five weeks for planning to denounce corruption by Aristóteles Sandoval, the governor of the western state of Jalisco.

Romero told Luke Rudkowski, a journalist from the grassroots media outlet We Are Change, that he uncovered evidence of corruption when he was working for an Italian construction firm in Jalisco.

Romero claimed to have seen documents that showed that Sandoval had falsified expenses and embezzled public funds during his time as mayor of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city and the capital of Jalisco state.

Romero said he saw receipts that revealed that Sandoval spent just 120,000 pesos ($7,900) on renovating the Minerva fountain, one of Guadalajara’s most iconic landmarks, in 2011, despite claiming to have spent 1.2 million pesos ($79,000), ten times the actual amount.

The remaining 1.08 million pesos of public money went into the funds for Sandoval’s campaign in the gubernatorial election, Romero alleged.

He also claimed to have read an email to the construction company in which Sandoval offered them a highly coveted contract to develop the Creative Digital City, a major development plan that aims to transform Guadalajara’s historic city center into a hub for digital media firms.

Sandoval allegedly offered to sell the contract to the firm for $15 million. Romero said this was completely illegal because public contracts are supposed to be granted through an open bidding process and the governor is not meant to be involved in this process…

Click here to read this story in full at Latin Correspondent.

Dismissal of acclaimed journalist Carmen Aristegui sparks outrage in Mexico

March 20, 2015

Widespread concern over media censorship and freedom of expression erupted across Mexico this week after the firing of Carmen Aristegui, one of the nation’s most respected journalists.

MVS Radio said it dismissed Aristegui, who hosted a hugely popular morning talk show, and her team of investigative reporters because they “compromised the name of the business” by lending their support to a new whistle-blowing platform without the company’s consent.

However, many in Mexico, including Aristegui herself, suspect the decision to fire her team was driven by pressure from a government that has been frequently embarrassed by their hard-hitting reporting.

A combative and influential reporter who also hosts a television show on CNN México, Aristegui was named the second most powerful woman in the country last year by Forbes México.

After being dismissed late on Sunday night, she gave a brief statement on Monday, affirming that her team, who work collectively under the name Aristegui Noticias, would be taking legal action to “fight for the freedom of expression” in Mexico.

Aristegui expanded upon her team’s position in a defiant press conference broadcast live on YouTube to more than 77,000 viewers on Thursday evening.

Although she admitted that she could not prove it, Aristegui said she suspects that the government intervened in a minor internal dispute that could have been resolved with a simple phone call in order to force her dismissal.

After proposing a meeting with the MVS owners on Monday and expressing her team’s desire to resume work “under the same conditions” as before, she ended the broadcast with a warning that Mexico is up against “an authoritarian machine” and is at serious risk of regression…

Click here to read this article in full at Latin Correspondent.

Mexican reporters are in the firing line

March 17, 2015
Mexican journalist Karla Silva was brutally assaulted in her office last year.

Mexican journalist Karla Silva was brutally assaulted in her office in Guanajuato last year.

Ever since the Mexican government declared war on the nation’s drug cartels in late 2006, it has consistently been ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

The constant threat of retaliatory violence against reporters who cover drug cartel activity has led many newspapers to censor themselves. This, along with the social media boom, has fuelled a wave of citizen journalism, with many Mexicans now reliant on brave but anonymous bloggers for local security news.

According to government statistics, 102 journalists were murdered in Mexico from 2000 until April 2014. At least another eight professional journalists were reportedly murdered and two more went missing since then, bringing the total number of reporters that were killed or disappeared last year to at least 14.

There is often a clear link between reporters’ work and their fates. In an investigation into the murder of 28 journalists in Mexico, non-profit organisation Committee to Protect Journalists found that 82 percent had covered crime, 32 percent had covered corruption and 18 percent had covered politics.

Although drug cartels are believed to be behind most murders, the lines between organized crime and corrupt officials are often blurred. Press-freedom watchdog Article 19 noted last year that public officials were allegedly responsible for 59.3 percent of the 330 documented acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets in Mexico in 2013.

While foreign correspondents are very rarely targeted, most victims are reporters at local or regional newspapers. The killings are heavily concentrated in five of Mexico’s most lawless states: Chihuahua, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Guerrero and Sinaloa.

With local outlets left with little recourse but to self-censor for their own safety, this has meant such areas become black holes for reporting. Citizen journalists have tried to cover the void through regularly updated blogs and social media accounts, but they too run huge risks.

Several bloggers have been murdered for writing about drug gangs in recent years, while “Lucy”, the mysterious female author of Mexico’s most read drug war site, Blog del Narco, has been forced into exile for her own protection.

Likewise, in late November, the anonymous administrator of Valor por Tamaulipas, a Facebook page with over 500,000 followers that provides security updates in the northern state, announced his retirement. The administrator, who had a price on his head courtesy of one of the cartels, said he was opting out for “personal reasons” although he has since resumed work on the site.

The previous month, one of his colleagues, María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, had been kidnapped and murdered. Her killers published images of her blood-splattered corpse on her Twitter account and warned others not to follow her example.

That gruesome spectacle was typical of the way that killers have sought to achieve maximum exposure in recent years, whether by hanging mutilated bodies from public bridges or posting grisly execution footage online.

Despite such horrific setbacks, Valor por Tamaulipas and many other sites keep on bravely publishing the latest gory news. But with little protection from authorities that are either unwilling or incapable of guaranteeing their safety, the future looks bleak for Mexican bloggers and journalists alike.

This paper has been published in Index on Censorship, Vol. 44, Issue 1 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All Rights Reserved. © [The Contributors]

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