TIME Mexico

Uber Drivers Hunted Down in Mexico as Taxi Unions Fight Online Competition

Yuri Cortez—AFP/Getty Images Taxi drivers take part in a protest against the private taxi company Uber for alleged unfair competition, in Mexico City on May 25, 2015.

Taxi drivers have attacked their online rivals and smashed their cars

Driving through this megacity from a rundown slum to an upscale business hub, David Garcia takes precautions to not be recognized as an Uber taxi operator. He keeps his smart phone on his lap rather than fixed under the mirror where it can be seen from the street. If police stop him, he says he is a private chauffer. He avoids going to certain hotspots where he says that traditional taxi drivers have attacked his colleagues. He is concerned about the car getting damaged. But he is also worried about staying in one piece himself.

“The taxi drivers can be really aggressive. They can block you in and break your mirrors and scratch the car. They attacked a colleague by a taxi stand. They smashed all his windows and beat him,” says Garcia, a 27 year old who has been driving an Uber for four months. Yet despite the hassle, Garcia says he likes the work. “You have good chats with the passengers. And I like driving. The taxi drivers don’t scare me.”

This anger towards online cab services such as Uber and Cabify has hit the headlines here in recent weeks as leaders of traditional taxi drivers have decried what they say is unfair competition. Taxi associations have held a series of demonstrations calling for the government to clamp down on the new services, which people call from their smartphones. One leader even promised to “hunt down” the digitally registered cars. “We are not going to leave (Uber cars) alone. We are tracking these colleagues and hunting them down,” Esteban Meza, who represents about 13,000 cabbies, told the El Universal newspaper. “Without doubt this is going to generate big trouble.”

The meteoric rise of Uber, from a service in San Francisco to a billion-dollar global business, has sparked disputes from Delhi to Rome to Manila. It is perhaps unsurprising that they have got a little rough in Mexico, where conflicts between rival taxi services have a history of spilling into violence. In 2013, a cameraman took this video of a bloody battle between drivers of cabs and motor-taxis in the southern state of Oaxaca in which a man was killed.

Uber has also come into a big but crowded market for taxis in Mexico City. The sprawl with 20 million residents already has tens of thousands of traditional licensed cabs, alongside thousands more motorbike taxis, bicycle taxis, and so-called “pirates” or cabs without the correct papers. Licensed cabs complain they have to pay expensive rates for their permits, which Uber drivers shirk. Mexico City transport authorities also require traditional taxi drivers to take courses, touching issues such as anger management. And they make the cabbies paint their cars in a uniform recognizable color, adding yet more outlays. They are currently making thousands of taxis paint their cars pink. With the costs and competition, drivers often hit the smoggy gridlocked streets for 14 hours a day to make ends meet.

At one taxi stand in the upscale Polanco neighborhood, drivers complained that Uber cars are aggressive as they steal their customers. “They drive right into our stand’s space to pick up their passengers,” said Ramon Trujillo, as he operated the radio and ate a plate of tacos. “You ask them politely to move and they swear at you.” Worse still, he said, Uber had hit them in their wallets, making business fall by about 40% this year. “This is a foreign service that is taking our money,” Trujillo added. A percentage of the Uber fees go the California-based corporation.

Uber has especially hit Mexico City’s upscale neighborhoods as it carves out its niche among young professionals. More than 300,000 people in the city have downloaded the app, with which the registered cars can be seen on the app as thick as bees in some trendy areas. The service appeals by allowing customers to pay with plastic, get online receipts and trace their chauffeurs. This reduces fear of a random taxi driver on the street mugging them – a problem that plagued Mexico City in the past, and still happens occasionally.

Mexico City authorities have zig zagged on how they will deal with the Uber challenge. Transport officials met with taxi leaders and promised to look at regulation of the online taxi services. However, Mexico City mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said there would be no arrests of Uber or Cabify drivers in the meantime. In Mexico State, which incorporates much of the city’s slums and suburbs, the governor Eruviel Avila said that Uber is “not formally authorized.” Yet, it is still easy to digitally hail down a taxi there.

Frustrated with the lack of action, taxi leaders announced last week that they would create a National Front of Taxis to oppose the online services, which are spreading to other Mexican cities. They promised to challenge the digital competition both in the courts and on the street. However, their angry words in the media do little to dissuade drivers such as Garcia. He says he earns 2,300 pesos – or $150 – a week driving an Uber, more than he did in a previous job working on a stall and has no intention of turning back. “It is fine the taxi drivers speak out,” he says. “They are just giving us publicity.”

TIME Mexico

Mexican Cartels Invent Ingenious Weapons to Help Battle Government

Improvised armored vehicle captured from the Zetas cartel.
Juan Cedillo Improvised armored vehicle captured from the Zetas cartel.

The drug gangs have no end of guns but are forced to invent weapons that could be in the A Team or Mad Max

As Mexican gangsters shot it out with troops in the border city of Reynosa this month, residents posted warnings on social media of where not to drive. Not only was the gunfire itself a problem but cartel gunmen had covered some roads with perilous spikes that they call ponchallantas or “tire punchers.” The hazard can appear suddenly as the cartels have customized vans with tubes that eject the spikes. If a car drives into them too fast, it can spin into a lethal crash. Gangsters also set grounded vehicles on fire, creating more debris in the way of security forces.

The tire punchers used in the April 17 firefight, in which soldiers arrested an alleged kingpin called José Tiburcio Hernández, are the latest example of the homemade battle technology developed by Mexico’s cartels. Gangsters have also built fighting vehicles with four inch-thick armor, sometimes referred to as “monsters” or “narco tanks.” And in October, police in the western state of Jalisco even busted a clandestine factory where traffickers assembled their own assault rifles.

The development of this narco technology south of the Rio Grande has grabbed the attention of U.S. security thinkers such as Robert Bunker, an external researcher for the U.S. Army War College. He compares it to the homemade war tools used by insurgent forces round the world. “Each battle technology has been adapted to both the conflict environment and the ideological and illicit economic motivations of the irregular forces,” Bunker says. “Caltrops and spike traps have been a component of warfare going back to the ancient Greeks. In many ways, we can think of them as pre-modern landmines.”

While there is no declared war in Mexico, fighting between rival cartels and the security forces has claimed more than 83,000 lives since 2007, according to a count by Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. Gangsters use traditional weapons, including Kalashnikovs, which are often smuggled from the United Sates. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has traced 73,684 guns seized in Mexico to U.S. gun sellers since 2009. Cartels also have rocket-propelled grenades, which may be stolen from Central American military caches.

However, it is harder for them to buy actual military vehicles leading to them inventing their own. The Zetas cartel, which was led by former soldiers, first developed its own armored vehicles, both converting regular trucks and building others from scratch. Their “monsters” resemble machines from the fantasy road wars of Mad Max, with gun turrets, battering rams and walls of armor.

The Mexican army has taken many of these makeshift tanks off the road, holding more than 40 of them in its base in Reynosa. But some are still at large and causing havoc. Last year, a Zeta monster attacked a hotel in the border town of Ciudad Mier, where executives from the oil services multinational Weatherford were staying. (The executives were shaken but unscathed).

Furthermore, vigilante groups that formed to fight cartels also built their own armored vehicles. “We were going into heavy gunfire and we needed protection. So we made these monsters of our own, based on the vehicles that the Zetas had built,” said Francisco Espinosa, a cattle rancher turned vigilante. With the help of local metal workers, they also used thick layers of armor, and added some of their own features such as mobile sand trenches.

The gun factory busted in October belonged to rising gang called the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The cartel has gained infamy for a series of attacks on Mexican officials, including an ambush on April 7 that killed 15 policemen. Hidden in two farm houses in the tequila-producing region, the factory used industrial metal cutters and blow torches to assemble AR15 rifles from components. “It’s highly sophisticated machinery with very precise software that allows them to make the cuts to finish the guns, which work perfectly,” Jalisco Attorney General Luis Carlos Najera said.

The factory likely uses gun parts that are sold on line, producing untraceable AR15’s, says Bunker, the security scholar. “I consider it conceptually sophisticated but not technologically sophisticated. The next step in this process will be the addition of a 3D metal printer. I’m sure this will come in time as more of these improvised arms factories spring up, metal printer technology matures, and prices for them drop.”

The cartels’ ability to make their own guns, customized vehicles and spike ejectors make them difficult for Mexico’s government to wipe out. Under President Enrique Pena Nieto, troops have arrested a string of cartel leaders, including the head of the Zetas and Sinaloan chief Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. This has helped reduce the total number of homicides, which went down from a peak of more than 22,000 in 2011 to 15,649 last year, according to a police count. But incidents such as the chaos in Reynosa and ambushes in Jalisco continue to shake the nation.

Bunker warns that cartels may keep on developing their battle tech. They could use drones for surveillance in the near future, giving them a fighting edge. Mexican gangsters have also used small car bombs, and could potentially harness bigger improvised explosive devices like those in the Middle East. “One area that we should keep an eye on is car bomb and IED use potentials,” Bunker says. “I could envision IEDs being placed in a city or town under certain circumstances.”

TIME Mexico

U.S. Legalization of Marijuana Has Hit Mexican Cartels’ Cross-Border Trade

The cartels are still smuggling harder drugs but advocates point out the success of legalization in cutting illegal trade

In the midst of this seething mountain capital, Mexico’s security ministry houses a bizarre museum — a collection of what the army seizes from drug traffickers. The Museo de Enervantes, often referred to as the Narco Museum, has drug samples themselves (including the rare black cocaine), diamond-studded guns, gold-coated cell phones, rocket-propelled grenades and medals that cartels award their most productive smugglers. It also shows off the narcos’ ingenuity for getting their drugs into the United States, including “trap cars” with secret compartments, catapults to hurl packages over the border fence and even false buttocks, to hide drugs in.

Agents on the 2,000 mile-U.S. border have wrestled with these smuggling techniques for decades, seemingly unable to stop the northward flow of drugs and southward flow of dollars and guns. But the amount of one drug — marijuana — seems to have finally fallen. U.S. Border Patrol has been seizing steadily smaller quantities of the drug, from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014. Mexico’s army has noted an even steeper decline, confiscating 664 tons of cannabis in 2014, a drop of 32% compared to year before.

This fall appears to have little to do with law enforcement, however, and all to do with the wave of U.S. marijuana legalization. The votes by Colorado and Washington State to legalize marijuana in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon and D.C. last year have created a budding industry. U.S. growers produce gourmet products with exotic names such as White Widow, Golden Goat and Oaktown Crippler as opposed to the bog-standard Mexican “mota.” American dispensaries even label their drugs, showing how strong they are, measured in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient), and grade their mix of sativa, which gets people stoned in a psychedelic way and indica, which has a more knock-out effect.

Drug policy reformists tout this market shift from Mexican gangsters to American licensed growers as a reason to spread legalization. “It is no surprise to me that marijuana consumers choose to buy their product from a legal tax-paying business as opposed to a black market product that is not tested or regulated,” says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “When you go to a legal store, you know what you are getting, and that is not going to be contaminated.” A group called Marijuana Doctors elaborate the point in this comical online ad.

Analysts are still trying to work out the long-term effect this shift will have on Mexican cartel finances and violence. The legal marijuana industry could be the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. It grew 74% in 2014 to $2.7 billion, according to the ArcView group, a cannabis investment and research firm. This includes revenue from both recreational drug stores and from medical marijuana, which has been legalized in 23 states. The group predicts the industry will top $4 billion by 2016.

This means less cash for Mexican cartels to buy guns, bribe police and pay assassins. Coinciding with legalization, violence has decreased in Mexico. Homicides hit a high in 2011, with Mexican police departments reporting almost 23,000 murders. Last year, they reported 15,649.

Other factors may have caused this fall in killings, says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former officer of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. “Finances from marijuana could be having an impact on violence but you also have to look at other causes. Many of the most violent cartel commanders have been killed or arrested,” Hope says. These downed warlords include the head of the Zetas cartel Heriberto Lazcano, a former soldier who was known as the Executioner for the mass graves he dug. Mexican marines say they shot Lazcano dead in 2012, although his cohorts bust into the funeral home and stole his corpse.

Despite the drop in homicides, Mexico’s violence is still at painful levels. In September, cartel thugs working with corrupt police attacked a group of students, killing three and abducting 43. The atrocity caused hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest corruption and bloodshed. On Monday, cartel gunmen ambushed police in Jalisco state, killing 15 in one of the worst attacks on security forces in recent years.

A key problem is that cartels have diversified to a portfolio of other crimes, from sex trafficking to stealing crude oil from Mexican pipelines. They also make billions smuggling hard drugs. Seizures of both heroin and crystal meth on the U.S.-Mexico border have gone up as those of marijuana have sunk, according to U.S. Homeland Security, with agents nabbing a record 34,840 pounds of meth in 2014.

In total, Americans spend about $100 billion on illegal drugs every year, according to a White House report. The estimate puts marijuana at about 40% of this, so the legal industry still only accounts for a fraction of the total. One restriction to growth is that U.S. federal law still prohibits cannabis, making banking difficult and scaring investors.

In the long term, drug policy reformers hope for a legal marijuana market in the entire region. This would throw up the possibility of Mexicans legally producing and exporting their drugs to the U.S., taking advantage of cheaper labor. “Cannabis is not unlike wine,” says Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at Washington’s Institute of Policy Studies. “I can buy a $200 bottle of wine, if that is what I am after. But many people will prefer the cheaper mass market product.” One advocate is former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has voiced support for an American entrepreneur who wants to import marijuana to the United States.

Any such cross-border market would require a change of U.N. treaties, which outlaw marijuana. These come up for discussion in a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016. “I feel optimistic there will be change. This movement has momentum,” Angell of Marijuana Majority says. “It is interesting that the United States was historically a driver of drug prohibition. Now parts of the U.S. are leading the change.”

Read next: The Business of Pot

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TIME Mexico

The Apparent Massacre of Dozens of Students Exposes the Corruption at the Heart of Mexico

Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014.
Adriana Zehbrauskas—Polaris Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014.

The disappearance and presumed killings of scores of students has led to protests against the Mexican government—and drug cartels

The young father’s corpse was left on the street of the southern Mexican town of Iguala with his eyes gouged out and flesh ripped off almost to the skull—a technique typical of the cartel murders that have become too common in this country. But unlike many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, he was no gang member, police officer or journalist. The body belonged to a 19-year old trainee teacher who had been preparing to participate in a march to commemorate a notorious massacre of Mexican students by the military and police in 1968. Instead of making it to that demonstration, though, the young man found himself the victim of a what will be a new atrocity date on Mexico’s bloody calendar.

The murder, which occurred on the night of Sept. 26 or morning of Sept. 27, was part of a brutal attack on student teachers by corrupt police officers and drug cartel assassins that has provoked protests across the nation. During the violence, at least six students and passersby were killed and another 43 students disappeared, with many last seen being bundled into police cars. Soldiers and federal agents have taken over the city of Iguala and have arrested more than 30 officers and alleged gunmen from a cartel called the Guerreros Unidos or Warriors United. They have also discovered a series of mass graves: on Oct. 4, they found 28 charred bodies and on Thursday night they discovered another four pits where they are unearthing more corpses. Agents are conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies belong to the students.

The atrocities have triggered national outrage and presented the biggest security-related challenge yet for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Taking power in 2012, Pena Nieto promised to reduce the tens of thousands of cartel killings and modernize a sluggish economy. He has overseen the arrests of major drug lords like Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, nabbed in February and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “The Viceroy,” who was detained on Thursday. But while the total number of homicides declined by 15% in his first year in office, parts of Mexico—such as Guerrero state, where Iguala sits—still suffer some of the highest murder rates in the world. There were 2,087 murders last year in Guerrero, a state of 3.4 million people, giving it a rate of 61 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

On Oct. 6, Pena Nieto swore the students would receive justice and ordered a major federal operation in response. “This is infuriating, painful and unacceptable,” he said in a televised address to the nation. But human rights groups and family members accused him of being slow to respond to the tragedy, allowing some of the possible perpetrators to escape. Iguala mayor Jose Luis Arbaca fled town more than four days after the shootings and disappearances. It later emerged that Mexico’s intelligence service had a file linking him to the Warriors United cartel. The mayor’s brother-in-law was arrested this week for involvement in the killings. “Very slow, Pena Nieto, very slow,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “This issue could have been cleared if the federal government had immediately taken responsibility for these students.”

However, the atrocities are also devastating to the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. (Pena Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for most of the 20th century.) Arbaca was a PRD member, and the party’s leader went to the city on Oct. 7 to personally apologize to residents. The governor of Guerrero state is also in the PRD and there have been calls for his resignation. The governor has denied the killing was his fault and called for a referendum on whether he should stay in power. Furthermore, when PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas joined a protest over the killings in Mexico City on Oct. 8 he was booed and had bottles thrown at him.

The march into Mexico City’s central plaza was joined by tens of thousands of people and was headed by family members of the victims. “I won’t rest until I have my son back,” Mario Cesar Gonzalez, father of 21-year old disappeared student Cesar, told TIME. “This is a problem of corrupt police and politicians working with drug cartels. I am going to fight until we discover the truth of what happened. I don’t care if they kill me. Nothing matters to me except my son.” Most of the disappeared students were the children of poor farmers and workers and went to a university for rural school teachers near Iguala.

Protesters also demonstrated in dozens of other cities across Mexico. In jungle-covered Chiapas state, thousands of the Zapatista rebels who rose up for indigenous rights in 1994 marched in silence in solidarity with the teachers. “Your pain is our pain,” said one banner. In Guerrero state itself, thousands blockaded major highways and shouted outside government buildings.

The killings brought back to the surface another problem that Pena Nieto’s government has been grappling with: vigilante groups that have risen to fight cartels. A Guerrero vigilante militia that operates in villages where many of the students come from has gone to Iguala, promising justice for the students. A local guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Army of Insurgent People said it will form a brigade to attack the Warriors United cartel. ” [We will] confront the political military aspects of this new front of the Mexican narco state,” says a masked man on a video message posted online as he stands besides photos of revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

The actual motives behind the attack on the students remain murky. About 120 students went into Iguala and had absconded with three buses from the Iguala station, which they wanted to take to the march in Mexico City. Students across Mexico often commandeer buses for their marches, a practice that is largely tolerated by the authorities. It was also reported by Mexican media that the students had disturbed a public event, angering city officials linked to the cartels, while the gangs might have believed the students were invading their turf.

One student who survived the attack said he wasn’t sure why the cartel and police went after them. “It came as a complete shock and surprise. We were relaxed and heading out of town, when suddenly there were bullets being fired from all directions,” said Alejandro, 19, who asked his surname not be used in case of reprisals. “I feel lucky that I am alive. But I think all the time about my companions who were taken. I don’t know what they could been through or how much pain they could have suffered. This makes me very sad and very angry.” Pena Nieto—and the rest of Mexico’s power brokers—should beware of that anger.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

President of Honduras Expects Mass Deportations of Minors From U.S.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández
Ross McDonnell for TIME Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 17, 2014.

The problem of violence driving Central American migration has its roots in U.S. drug consumption, President Juan Orlando Hernández says in an exclusive interview with TIME

(TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras) — Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been warned by U.S. officials to expect a enormous wave of deportations from the United States, he told TIME in an interview at the presidential palace in the Honduran capital on July 17. “They have said they want to send them on a massive scale,” he said.

Before another planned visit to the United States beginning Thursday, Hernández said his country is preparing to receive the returnees but the United States needs to support him in building security in this Central American nation. He took power in January to confront what may be the biggest migration crisis in his country’s history, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children captured on the border in the United States.

Honduras has suffered with the world’s worst murder rate in any country outside a war zone, as street gangs known as maras have become increasingly linked to drug traffickers moving cocaine from the Andes region to the Unites States. Hernández said his government has worked hard to reduce this murder rate in his first months in office, but said violence is still a major problem driving the youth migration.

To combat the criminals, Hernández calls for a security plan with U.S. support, akin to Plan Colombia in which U.S. aid helped the South American nation battle drug traffickers and cocaine-funded guerrillas. The United States has a responsibility to help Honduras, Hernández says, because U.S. drug consumption is driving the violence.

The following exchange has been edited for brevity.

The wave of migration has generated a strong debate in the United States. How do explain this rapid rise in child migrants?

I believe there is a combination of factors. One is the lack of opportunities in Central America and we have to build opportunities here more quickly. Two is the issue of violence, because if you look, you will see that in the case of Honduras, the highest level of migration is in the places with the most conflict, particularly in the neighborhoods where the street gangs have become the armed wing of drug traffickers and kill each other for territorial control. . . . But the other factor, that we shouldn’t forget, is the lack of clarity of U.S. immigration policy. When the immigration debate goes on, disgracefully, the coyotes [the human smugglers] come and say, “Now is when you can bring your child from Central America.” . . . So my call to the United States is that it defines these rules with clarity.

The violence in Honduras is complex. What drives it more, drug cartels or street gangs?

What is happening in Honduras is that drug traffickers partnered with the street gangs so that the gangs did the violent work of extortion and kidnapping. What happened? When the huge packages of drugs arrived at the coast or landed in a plane, the drug traffickers said to Hondurans, “Move these drugs to Guatemala or Mexico, but I am going to pay you with drugs and you finance the operation.” So the street gangs carried out extortion and sold the drugs, contaminating society.

For this reason, I call for the principle of shared responsibility between those who produce [drugs] and those who consume them in the North. In the United States, many officials see the drug problem as basically one of health, as how much it costs to treat an addict and stop them getting involved. But for us it is life and death. That is the difference. . . .

I want to remind the North American people what happened before Mayor Giuliani in New York, how drugs, among other factors, combined to make a very difficult security situation. This happened in Los Angeles when the street gangs also moved drugs; it happened in Miami. But the fight against it was successful. [Americans] have suffered violence in their territory from drug trafficking. Well, now it is happening to us, but in much higher rates. Never in Central America, particularly in the northern triangle and in Honduras has there been so much loss of life as in this decade. Never. Never in history. And look, disgracefully, this is a not an issue that originates in Honduras.

If in the United States, there is a move to change the law to deport a minor without a court hearing would you oppose it?

I would like to ask congressmen and senators and those who make political decisions in the United States that they think first in the interest of the child, because the child as well being a human being, is more vulnerable than the adult. But also they [children] go with the very human, very natural desire to be with their parents. . . .

On the other side, if there is a child without a family member in the United States, and the law says they have to return, we are working with this. Like never before in Honduras, we are investing resources to warmly receive our countrymen, with psychologists, doctors, giving them different options that we have for job opportunities, or farming financing. We are also guiding them spiritually, because they are families that are destroyed inside. They sold everything before leaving, and they arrive frustrated. We have to reintegrate them. We are making this effort.

What has the U.S. government said to you about the issue of migration? Have they told you they are going to deport many more people?

Yes, they have said they want to send them on a massive scale. We told them that number one, we have to respect the principle of giving priority to the child. Two, in the case that a family has children that don’t have relatives in the United States, that they don’t deport them along with adults that have committed crimes there. We don’t want them to be mixed. They [U.S. officials] have understood that part, and we, knowing there are large quantities, more than usual, have had to prepare ourselves to receive our countrymen.

Are you optimistic this is the start of something better, or will it be a long, dark difficult time ahead?

It is a difficult situation. It is a humanitarian crisis that the world needs to see. How long will it last? Will it get more complicated? This depends on support from countries such as the United States and Mexico. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras we are working hard.

If they help us, because this is a problem they generate, I repeat, because of the connection between the drugs they consume in enormous quantities in the United States that are produced in the south and pass through Central America, generating violence, generating this migratory flow—if they help us I am sure we will be on the route to resolves this in a short time.

TIME central america

Honduran Children Deported From U.S. Back to World’s ‘Most Violent City’

A chartered flight of minors and mothers deported from the U.S. landed on Monday in San Pedro Sula, said to be the world's murder capital

Twenty-one Honduran children and 17 mothers deported from the U.S. landed in San Pedro Sula on Monday — reportedly the most murderous city in the world — to be greeted with balloons and smiles from Honduras’ First Lady.

“These are people coming home with a broken heart and a broken dream,” Ana García de Hernández told a throng of reporters and cameramen pushing at a barricade as the deportees were given food. “We have to give them the best welcome we can.”

Children have been deported before from the U.S. to Central America, although usually seated more discreetly on commercial flights. But the plane that landed on Monday from New Mexico was the first flight entirely made up of women and children deportees to be sent to this impoverished Central American country, Honduran officials said. García said it would be one of dozens of such flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the coming weeks, delivering deportees not only to Honduras but also El Salvador, Guatemala and parts of the region.

Tens of thousands of Central American minors have made the hazardous journey to the U.S. by themselves, in the hope of forming an immigration foothold for their families. Because U.S. border facilities are so overwhelmed, authorities often release children into the care of relatives already in the country. The largest number comes from Honduras, a mountainous land of sprawling banana plantations that has become the deadliest country in the world outside a war zone. In 2012, it suffered 90 killings per 100,000 people. While poverty has long been a driver of emigration, many children cite the violence as the reason they flee.

However, with these chartered flights the new attitude from Washington is clear: children should no longer come because they will not be allowed to stay.

“These deportation flights send a message to people and families in Central America, but also they send a message that the governments should listen to,” says Héctor Espinal, the Honduras spokesman for the UNICEF, which is overseeing the reception of deportees. “The message is that governments should do what they need to do to stop the violent conditions that are making these children leave.”

Exactly how to stop the violence in Honduras is a subject of much debate. Many murders are carried out by two major gangs, each with thousands of members — the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Surviving military crackdowns and anti-gang laws, they have grown into transnational criminal organizations capable of shaking down businesses large and small. Adding to the bloodshed, drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia use Honduras as a staging point to move cocaine north to the profitable U.S. market.

Speaking to TIME, First Lady García said Honduras needs its own U.S.-funded anticrime program, akin to Plan Colombia or Mexico’s Merida Initiative, to fight the gangs and cartels.

“We have been having a frank conversation with U.S. Congressmen, and we accept that a cause of much of this emigration is the violence. The 30 most violent municipalities in Honduras are also the municipalities with most unaccompanied minors leaving, and these are places that have been hit by drug trafficking,” García said. “Drug trafficking starts in South America, unfortunately passes through our country and continues to the United States. We have spoken about the need for integral support to solve this problem. My husband, the President, has spoken about the need to implement in Honduras what they implemented in Colombia and in Mexico.”

Any improvement however, will take time — and in the meantime, many are desperate. Coming out of the deportation-processing center after arriving on another flight, 20-year-old Wilson Hernandez said he was concerned about going back to his home in the Pradera del Sur neighborhood of San Pedro Sula.

“It is a brutal place. There are gang members with rifles and grenades. I am scared to go out of my house a lot of the time,” says Hernandez, who was caught crossing into Texas.

In April and May, eight minors were murdered in Pradera del Sur. Police say they were killed by gang members, possibly because they refused to be recruited.

“This kind of violence makes kids want to run away. They just want to survive,” Hernandez says. “They can fly people home, but if this carries on they will still head north. Things have to change here.”

TIME Mexico

How Gravity Director Alfonso Cuarón Stirred up Mexico’s Oil Politics

Alfonso Cuaron Attends to Possibility Sessions
Adan Gutierrez—STR/LatinContent/Getty Images Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron attends a press conference to talk with university students on April 30, 2014.

Alfonso Cuarón's call for a crackdown on corruption, environmental reforms and more transparency has shaken up Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's plans to give private companies a share of its oil wealth

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared to have outmaneuvered all opposition for his reforms to give private foreign companies a share of the nation’s oil wealth. Street protests in defense of oil nationalism attracted thousands instead of millions. Calls for an immediate referendum on energy laws were dismissed as unconstitutional. Key opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former presidential candidate, even suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack.

But he didn’t count on the power of Hollywood. At the eleventh hour, as lawmakers looked set to approve the new rules, the Oscar-winning Mexican director of Gravity stormed onto the scene, to call for a deeper debate on what will be the biggest change to Mexico’s energy politics since it nationalized the black gold in 1939.

In a newspaper ad on April 28, Alfonso Cuarón asked tough questions about uncomfortable issues such as taking on the oil-workers’ labor union (a traditional supporter of Peña Nieto’s party), stopping corruption in new energy contracts, and protecting the environment. Finally, on Monday, he published a new ad calling for three primetime TV debates on the energy laws.

“We should hold a plural and open debate about the reforms, a debate that the citizens deserve,” wrote Cuarón in the ad, also placed on the internet. “The quality of a democracy goes beyond the electoral process. And it goes beyond the discussions and votes of Congress. The quality of a democracy depends on a large part on its public debates.”

It is yet to be seen how much impact the first Mexican to win the Academy Award for best director will have on the final laws. But his words shook up the discussion of the energy reform in Mexico’s Congress and media. Senators for the former ruling National Action Party on Tuesday rallied in support of Cuarón’s proposal for TV debates. “It is a good idea to keep giving coverage of the issue of oil reform, because it is better if citizens know all the details,” Sen. Salvador Vega, head of the energy commission, told reporters. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party went even further, calling for Cuarón to personally come into the Senate to speak about the subject.

The momentum of Cuarón’s call could make it difficult for Peña Nieto to refuse the demand. When Cuarón won his Oscar in March, Peña Nieto tweeted on how the success was good for Mexico. When Cuarón released his first ad, Peña Nieto tweeted again, thanking him “for enriching the debate,” before his administration released a 13-page PDF document defending the reforms. However, prime time TV debates could add strain on Peña Nieto in rallying lawmakers to support the new oil laws, which they are expected to vote on in the following weeks. Constitutional changes to Mexico’s oil laws that would allow a greater role of foreign companies were already approved in December. But the new rules to be voted on will spell out the vital details of the historic energy reform.

The government document that responded to Cuarón reiterated many of the points that Peña Nieto has raised since he took office in 2012. It said that allowing more involvement of foreign companies could increase Mexico’s oil production, creating wealth that will boost the economy. It said the government will also support alternative green energy. And it said that new contracts and the union are open to public scrutiny.

The movie director’s stance has won both support and criticism in mainstream and social media in Mexico. Leftist newspaper La Jornada, long an opponent of oil reform, applauded Cuarón. However, Ana Paula Ordorica wrote in Excelsior newspaper that Cuarón was abusing his fame. “Cuaron should talk, ask and be active in everything to do with cinema and leave energy politics in the hands of those that know the issue and are available to discuss and debate it,” Ordorica wrote. The tag #Alfonsocuaron also went wild on Twitter. “I think the profession of good citizen has fallen on Alfonso Cuaron,” tweeted Christian Gutma. “He shows us that we have the right to demand, confront.”

Whatever happens to the oil reform itself, Cuarón’s position could set a new precedent in Mexican politics. Mexican actors and directors, many who won fame in the nation’s steamy telenovela soap operas, long stayed largely clear of government debate. Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before shooting into Hollywood’s A-list with Gravity, has pushed into new frontiers. But while finding his fame abroad, Cuarón says he has deep roots and loyalty to his homeland. “I am living outside [of Mexico] for circumstances of life, but I have my cultural roots in Mexico,” Cuarón told a news conference in Mexico City, following the first ad. “I think like a Mexican.”

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