TIME Crime

Mexican Cartel Drug Trafficker Sentenced to 22 Years

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman
This Feb. 22, 2014, file photo shows Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, being escorted to a helicopter in Mexico City following his capture overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan Eduardo Verdugo—AP

Prosecutors say Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez is a lieutenant for Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman

Vowing to send a message to drug traffickers around the world, a U.S. judge sentenced Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez, 59, to 22 years in prison for his role in a billion dollar narcotics trafficking conspiracy.

Hernandez, reputed to be a lieutenant in a Mexican drug cartel led by Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, asked for “forgiveness and pity” moments before the sentence was read out, reports the Associated Press.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo was unmoved, however. “I tell you on behalf of all citizens of Chicago … we are tired of this drug trafficking,” he said.

Hernandez pleaded guilty of possessing heroin and cocaine with intent to distribute. However, his attorney, Paul Brayman, requested the minimum 10-year sentence, maintaining that “anything more … is a death sentence,” considering his client’s advanced years.

The prosecution relied primarily on the testimony of twins Pedro and Margarito Flores, former associates of the Sinaloa cartel turned government witnesses. They portrayed Hernandez as a close aide who helped Guzman move tons of illicit drugs from Mexico to Chicago within furniture cargo.

In mitigation, Brayman said Hernandez was merely an auto-mechanic caught in a one-off drug deal while the testimony of the Flores twins could not trusted, as they had to have cut a deal with prosecutors.

Castillo maintained that while the legitimacy of what the twins said could be called into question, it was not the ranking of Hernandez within the cartel that mattered. The judge also questioned the portrayal of Hernandez as an hapless auto-repairman caught in the act for which he was extradited to Chicago in 2012.

“I am not going to sit here … and think for one second this was the first time you happened to do this,” said Castillo.

After hearing the sentence, Gabriel Vasquez, the 43-year-old son of Hernandez, told reporters his father was “not the monster that everyone says he is,” and that the sentence was too harsh.

[Associated Press]

TIME Mexico

Angry Mexicans Protest Over 43 Missing Students

Mexico Missing Students
A couple hold candles during a massive protest in Mexico City's main sqaure "El Zocalo," during a march in the capital city to demand authorities find 43 missing college students, in Mexico City on Nov. 20, 2014 Eduardo Verdugo—AP

"We are mad with this Mexican government and its entire structure, because it has not done anything but deceive the families"

(MEXICO CITY) — A largely peaceful march by tens of thousands demanding the return of 43 missing students ended in violence, as a small group of masked protesters battled police in Mexico City’s main square.

The march late Thursday sought the return of the students from a rural teachers’ college. Nov. 20 is usually a day reserved for the celebration of Mexico’s 1910-17 Revolution, but Mexicans were in no mood for celebrations.

Many of the marchers carried “mourning” flags with Mexico’s red and green national colors substituted by black stripes.

“The entire country is outraged,” said housewife Nora Jaime. “It is not just them,” she added, referring to the 43 young men who haven’t been seen since being attacked by police in a southern city Sept. 26. “There are thousands of disappeared, thousands of clandestine graves, thousands of mothers who don’t know where their children are.”

The march in Mexico City was largely peaceful, in contrast to recent protests that have ended with the burning of government buildings in Guerrero state, where the students disappeared. Whenever masked protesters tried to join Thursday’s march, demonstrators shouted them down with chants of “No violence!” and “Off with the masks!”

The protesters converged on the city’s main square, where families of the missing students stood on a platform in front of the National Palace holding posters of their relatives’ faces. Amid chants for President Enrique Pena Nieto to step down, family members repeated that they do not believe the government’s account that the youths were killed by a drug gang,

“We’re not tired,” said one man speaking from the platform. “On the contrary, we are mad with this Mexican government and its entire structure, because it has not done anything but deceive the families.”

After most of the protesters left the square, a small group of masked youths began battling police with rocks and sticks. Police responded with fire extinguishers to put out fires set by the youths and to force them off of the square.

Police charged across the square to drive the protesters out. At least two news photographers, including one from The Associated Press, were injured by police, who took two cameras and some lenses from the A.P. photographer.

Earlier in the day, about 200 youthful protesters, some with their faces covered by masks or bandannas, clashed with police as they tried to block a main expressway to the international airport. Protesters hurled rocks, fireworks and gasoline bombs at the police, at least one of whom was hit by the projectiles. Some passengers had to walk to the terminal, but flights were not interrupted and expressways were reopened.

Many average people, outraged by the disappearances of the students, turned out for the march despite cool weather and some light rain.

Maria Antonieta Lugo was part of a group of housewives who joined the march “because we have children of the same age” as the missing students, who ranged from their teens to their 20s. “This could happen to our children as well,” she said.

Maria Teresa Perez held up a poster with a picture of her son, Jesus Horta Perez, 45, who was kidnapped by armed men from a storefront in a Mexico City suburb in 2009 and has never been heard from again.

“They are shouting about 43, but they should be counting in the thousands, because apart from these 43, there are 33,000 disappeared,” Perez said.

Mexico officially lists 22,322 people as having gone missing since the start of the country’s drug war in 2006. And the search for the missing students has turned up other, unrelated mass graves.

The 43 students, who attended a radical rural teachers college known as Ayotzinapa, disappeared after they went to the Guerrero city of Iguala to hijack buses. Iguala police intercepted them on the mayor’s orders and turned them over to the criminal group Guerreros Unidos, a gang with ties to the mayor, prosecutors have said. Prosecutors say there is evidence the gang members killed the students and incinerated their remains.

It is that link between a local government and drug gang that disgusts many Mexicans.

“I think the reason people are here today is not just Ayotzinapa,” said one protester, Alejandro Gonzalez, who studied industrial design in Pachuca. “I think that today, more than ever … people are realizing the political structures are rotten, useless.”

TIME world affairs

We Are 43 Short

Mexican flag
Getty Images

Mexicans stand by their missing students, refusing to move on and look away this time

Forty three students from a small rural teachers’ college in Mexico’s mountainous southern backwater have jolted this nation out of its decade-long immunity to a proper outrage to mass violence, and threatened to hijack President Enrique Peña Nieto’s triumphant narrative that Mexico was back on track, destined for First Worldliness. These poor students did this, tragically, by disappearing, at the hands of local security forces that seem to operate as a public-private partnership between government and organized crime.

By now you’ve probably heard the basic outlines of the story: On September 26th, 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a teacher’s school well known for its political activism in the southern state of Guerrero, vanished after participating in a political protest in the city of Iguala, some 150 miles from their school. The mayor of Iguala and his wife—who were on the run until being apprehended by federal authorities this week—apparently ordered that the students “be taught a lesson.” Before the 43 students disappeared that night, six people were killed in an open clash—students and civilians who were just passing by—and 20 more were wounded. Some students had the chance to phone their parents while being attacked.

What’s followed since that day must have shocked the powers that be, so accustomed to acting with impunity. Instead of shrugging the news away as something to be expected in a place like Guerrero (which is scary to people in other parts of Mexico the way all of Mexico is scary to Americans unfamiliar with our country), Mexican society has become thoroughly outraged by the kids’ fate. Instead of seeing what happened as something to be expected when leftist students go seeking trouble, people are angry about the initially lethargic official response.

It’s one heartening aspect to the tragedy. Even in a country that has witnessed more than 22,000 people go missing in the past eight years (and that’s the official estimate), we’ve found the humanity to identify with these students of Ayotzinapa. Their stories—the heartbreaking accounts of the survivors, the humble origin of their families—have all had a powerful impact on Mexican society. And so the question that remains to be answered is: Will their story, with all of its horror, mark a “before and after” for Mexico? Is this it? And if this is it, what does it mean?

In recent years, violence fueled by organized crime has transformed Mexico profoundly, from the way we live our daily lives, to our future expectations and the ways we engage in public issues, demand change or perceive our political elites. Nothing, or almost nothing, has remained untouched by violence and its pervasive effects.

This is not the first time that public forces have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of civilians in Mexico. Sadly, there are a number of documented cases in the past few years. What in particular about Ayotzinapa has caused such a strong reaction? It’s hard to figure out, given all the previous victims, but three factors seemed to conspire to make this atrocity a watershed in public opinion: the victims’ status as students, the fact that the crime, and the botched response, took place on President Peña Nieto’s watch, and, well, the fact that at some point our society was going to have to answer the “How many are too many?” question.

The fact that these victims were students, like many of the victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, has resonated powerfully across the country, triggering a welcome and all-too rare shared emotional reaction: empathy. The media and several human rights organizations have done an admirable job of revealing who these 43 students are: Luis is quiet and reserved; Marco loves rock music and is hardly ever in a bad mood; Saul is just plain fun; Adan loves soccer…” All of them are humble, country people studying to become teachers. All of them are leftist and combative and strong opponents of the local, state, and federal authorities—but they are not criminals. These were young students attacked and kidnapped by the same people who were supposed to look after them. It could happen to anyone.

The Peña Nieto factor is about holding a president accountable to his own marketing. Part of Mexicans’ immunity to outrage under the previous administration was a sinking sense that competence was not the federal government’s strong point under Felipe Calderón, least of all competence in overseeing corrupt local and state governments governed by other parties. The appeal of bringing back the tough PRI bosses in 2012 was that they knew how to run the place, including its most unsavory elements, and would allow us to move on to other things. Peña Nieto’s entire pitch could have been summed up in a pithy bumper sticker slogan: “Let’s Change the Subject.” And sure enough, he did. Once in office, he exuded confidence that his security people could handle all the recent unpleasantness so that he, and the rest of us, could focus on education, the economy, energy reforms, and all the other things that were in his triumphalist script.

But the Peña Nieto administration’s failure to find the missing students, not to mention its failure to prevent such atrocities in the first place, is undermining its entire reason for being. All the hype about Mexico’s future, the government’s vaunted reforms applauded in the international press, the talk of a prosperous, secure country “on the move”—all of it is threatened by the stark tragedy of Ayotzinapa.

In the search for the 43 missing students, concealed graves full of human remains have appeared all around Iguala. The sad truth is that they must be all around Mexico. “We have been witnessing people’s disappearance for years, and they had to be somewhere,” Mario Campos, a well-known journalist wrote some days ago. Mexico’s thousands of victims are slowly emerging from their macabre resting places. Most of them are still unnamed and unidentifiable, but they are not longer hard cold numbers.

Huge demonstrations are being organized across the country, and the issue is only gaining steam on social media. The number of people taking to the streets, tweeting and reposting messages on social networks in coming days will reveal a lot about the future of the movement and its potential consequences. Judging by the intensity of what is going on, the issue won’t fade away.

Ayotzinapa has also revealed in all its crudeness the precarious state of municipalities all around Mexico. In Iguala, as in many other places, authorities and criminals are now indistinguishable. According to Guillermo Trejo, a professor from CIDE, a top research institution in Mexico City, in the past few years—years in which disappearances have increased—criminal organizations have also changed their goals and tactics. Before, their priority was to “keep business as usual,” which basically meant to corrupt a few members of the local authorities to guarantee the status quo. Now, criminal organizations have literally seized the local power structures and resources. This is true in states such as Guerrero and Tamaulipas. In Michoacán, Tejo argues, criminals take as much as 30 percent of the municipalities’ budgets, 20 percent of the local salaries, and regularly demand to be given public contracts (which of course are never fulfilled). In this context, it should come as no surprise that so many civilian self-defense groups have emerged across the country.

And so it isn’t clear where we go from here. There is no easy way out of this situation, as much as we tried the “change the subject” tactic. We’re now confronting reality in all its bleakness, with no trusted institutions to turn to. Ayotzinapa has revealed so many rotten things about Mexico’s political structures that it has finally convinced thousands—if not millions—of people, that our only chance to save us, to save our country, begins with standing by those 43 kids, and willing their return. It’s a first step.

Ana Francisca Vega is a journalist based in Mexico City, who has co-founded the website “Codigo Espagueti” and hosts a daily TV technology show at Foro TV. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Mexico

See Mexico’s Protests Over the Murder of 43 Students

Thousands have taken to the street across Mexico over the last few weeks to complain about the government's handling of the case

At least 14 young people have been arrested in Mexico City after protests erupted over the suspected murder of dozens of students.

A mob attacked the National Palace, burning the main door and daubing slogans on the walls, after authorities said gangsters had murdered 43 students who had been protesting alleged discriminatory practices in the Guerrero state town of Iguala.

TIME Mexico

Protests Over Disappeared Mexican Students Intensify

Burning cars are seen during a protest demanding for justice in the case of the 43 missing students, outside the State Government headquarters in Chilpancingo, Guerrero State, on November 8, 2014. Ronaldo Schemdit—AFP/Getty Images

Angry citizens are calling for the president to resign

Masked demonstrators set fire to the door of Mexico City’s ceremonial presidential palace while protesting the Mexican government’s announcement that the 43 college students missing since September were killed by a drug gang and burned in a pyre of branches and tires.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful until the end, when a number of protestors broke away and tore down the fences around the palace and set its door on fire, The Guardian reports. Riot police clashed with demonstrators before clearing the scene.

Anger over the disappearance of the students, who are believed to have been turned over to the drug gang Guerreros Unidos following an attack by corrupt police offers, has been directed toward the government and its handling of the case since it took over the investigation from state officials after 10 days.

Attendees chanted “It was the state” to protest the apparent internal corruption within the government that surrounds the case; the mayor of Iguala, where the students went missing, has allegedly had ties to the drug gang since he first took office.

Many are calling for President Enrique Peña Nieto and Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam to resign.

[The Guardian]

TIME Mexico

Mexico Says Drug Gang Killed 43 Missing Students

Mexico Missing Students
Federal police and a helicopter search for the missing 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College Raul Isidro Burgos are seen in Tianquizolco, near Cocula, Mexico on Nov. 7, 2014. Henry Romero—Reuters

Bodies were burned in a pile of branches and tires

A Mexican drug gang killed the 43 missing Mexican college students and burned their bodies in a pile of branches and tires, authorities said Friday.

Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said members of the gang who had been arrested told investigators about their role in the students’ disappearances and guided investigators to the riverside remains, which will be tested in specialized facilities in Austria, the New York Times reports.

With 72 people arrested, Karam said the case is one of Mexico’s largest criminal investigations in history. “The statements and information that we have gotten unfortunately points to the murder of a large number of people,” he said a press conference.

While searching for the students, who are believed to have been turned over to criminals following an attack by corrupt police in September, investigators discovered other mass graves around the city of Iguala.

The case has led to many protests and heaps of criticism aimed at President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has tried to reform Mexico’s reputation for violence.


TIME Mexico

Fugitive Mexican Mayor Suspected in Missing-Students Case Is Arrested

Federal police made the announcement on Tuesday

The mayor of the Mexican city of Iguala who is suspected of ordering an attack on dozens of college students was reportedly arrested Tuesday in Mexico City.

José Luis Abarca had been the target of a manhunt for weeks since he took a leave of absence in late September and subsequently disappeared, according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited a tweet about the capture by federal police spokesman José Ramón Salinas. In the days before Abarca left, 43 students had disappeared in a confrontation with local police over possible plans to disrupt a speech by his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who was also detained Tuesday.

Authorities have found about three down bodies in hidden graves, but none have been identified as any of the missing students.

Read the full story in the Los Angeles Times.

TIME Mexico

Mexican Soldiers to Face Civilian Trial for Killing 22 Suspected Criminals

A 15-year-old girl is among those allegedly killed in cold blood

Seven Mexican soldiers are to be tried by a civilian judge for the June 30 killings of 22 suspected criminals, federal justice officials said Sunday. Three have been charged with aggravated homicide.

The suspects have been held in a military detention center since Friday when a state judge ordered their arrest for dereliction of duty, reports AFP.

In September, a witness claimed the gun battle in question produced only one fatality and that the troops had murdered the other 21 victims.

Should they be found guilty, the incident would rank as one of the worst in Mexico’s savage drugs war that has claimed more than 80,000 lives since 2006.


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