TIME Mexico

Mexico Captures Drug Lord Who Led Knights Templar Cartel

Servando Gomez Martinez, aka La Tuta, in Mexico City in June 2009.
Secretaria de Seguridad Publica/AFP/Getty Images Servando Gomez Martinez, aka La Tuta, in Mexico City in June 2009.

Servando "La Tuta" Gomez had been on the run for over a year

A Mexican federal official says federal police have captured Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, one of the most-wanted drug lords and who once terrorized western Michoacan state.

The official says Gomez was captured early Friday in the capital city of Morelia without a shot fired. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Gomez was the leader of the Knights Templar cartel, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of the state, controlling politics and commerce. He evaded capture for more than a year after the federal government took over the state to try to restore order.

TIME remembrance

Mexican Singer Ariel Camacho Dies in Car Accident Aged 22

The 22-year-old was on tour promoting El Karma

Mexican singer Ariel Camacho died in a car crash Wednesday on a highway outside Sinaloa, Mexico.

The 22-year-old was on the road promoting a deluxe edition of his latest album El Karma when he was involved in a highway collision, reports Billboard.

“My heart is broken by the loss of Ariel Camacho,” said Angel Del Villar, president of the Regional Mexican label. “I knew he was going to transform the genre in Mexico and the United States. Millions of people would have become fans and would have gotten to know the man I did.”

As the frontman of the band Los Plebes del Rancho, Camacho performed in the Sierreno musical style, featuring acoustic guitars, bass and accordians played by a musical trio. El Karma was released by DEL records, amassing Camacho a loyal fan base for his soft vocals and adroit guitar-playing.

[Billboard]

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Knocked for ‘Mexicanization’ Remark

Pope Francis addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking Saint Peter's square during his Angelus prayer on Feb. 22, 2015 at the Vatican.
Tiziana Fabi—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking Saint Peter's square during his Angelus prayer on Feb. 22, 2015 at the Vatican.

The Vatican said he meant no offense

The Vatican said Wednesday that Pope Francis “absolutely did not intend to offend the Mexican people” when he appeared to express concern that drug trafficking was making his native Argentina resemble Mexico.

Over the weekend, the Pope wrote in an email to Argentine lawmaker and friend Gustavo Vera, “Hopefully we are in time to avoid Mexicanization,” referring to the country’s drug trade, the Associated Press reports. After Vera published the email on the website for his organization, the Alameda Foundation, Mexico formally complained that the Pope was unnecessarily “stigmatizing Mexico” despite the country’s efforts to battle drug cartels there.

In response, the Vatican sent Mexico’s ambassador an official note and said the Pope’s choice of words were taken from a informal, private email that merely borrowed language Vera himself had used as lawmaker battling Argentina’s own drug trade.

“The Pope intended only to emphasize the seriousness of the phenomenon of the drug trafficking that afflicts Mexico and other countries in Latin America,” Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “It is precisely this importance that has made the fight against drug trafficking a priority for the government.”

[AP]

TIME remembrance

Mexican Actress Lorena Rojas Dies at 44 After Cancer Battle

Lorena Rojas at the 2007 Telemundo Upfront event on May 15, 2007.
Robson Muzel—NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Lorena Rojas at the 2007 Telemundo Upfront event on May 15, 2007.

Popular telenovela star had been diagnosed with liver cancer

Renowned Mexican actress and singer-songwriter Lorena Rojas, 44, passed away Monday at her Miami home after succumbing to liver cancer. She is survived by her daughter Luciana.

Born in Mexico City, she achieved celebrity for her roles in Mexican soap operas like El Cuerpo del Deseo, Pecados Ajenos, Alcanzar Una Estrella and Demente Criminal, reports the Latin Times.

In addition to starring in telenovelas, Rojas also appeared in five films and in stage productions of Manos Quietas and Aventurera. Last year, inspired by her daughter, she worked as a musical composer for the children’s album Hijos Del Sol.

[Latin Times]

TIME Mexico

Mexican Opium Farmers Expand Plots to Supply U.S. Heroin Boom

APTOPIX Mexico Heroin Trade
Dario Lopez-Mills—AP Villagers gather to talk with journalists about their communities and dependence on growing opium to make a living in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains of Guerrero state, Mexico, on Jan. 26, 2015.

Mexican farmers are feeding a growing addiction in the U.S.

(SIERRA MADRE DEL SUR, Mexico) — Red and purple blossoms with fat, opium-filled bulbs blanket the remote creek sides and gorges of the Filo Mayor mountains in the southern state of Guerrero.

The multibillion-dollar Mexican opium trade starts here, with poppy farmers so poor they live in wood-plank, tin-roofed shacks with no indoor plumbing.

Mexican farmers from three villages interviewed by The Associated Press are feeding a growing addiction in the U.S., where heroin use has spread from back alleys to the cul-de-sacs of suburbia.

The heroin trade is a losing prospect for everyone except the Mexican cartels, who have found a new way to make money in the face of falling cocaine consumption and marijuana legalization in the United States. Once smaller-scale producers of low-grade black tar, Mexican drug traffickers are now refining opium paste into high-grade white heroin and flooding the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, using the distribution routes they built for marijuana and cocaine.

It is a business that even the farmers don’t like. In a rare interview with reporters, the villagers told The Associated Press that it’s too difficult to ship farm products on roads so rough and close to the sky that cars are in constant danger of tumbling off the single-lane dirt roads that zig-zag up to the fields. They say the small plastic-wrapped bricks of gummy opium paste are the only thing that will guarantee them a cash income.

“Almost everyone thinks the people in these mountains are bad people, and that’s not true,” said Humberto Nava Reyna, the head of the Supreme Council of the Towns of the Filo Mayor, a group that promotes development projects in the mountains. “They can’t stop planting poppies as long as there is demand, and the government doesn’t provide any help.”

Villagers granted the AP access to their farms and agreed to interviews only if they were not identified, fearing it could draw attention from government drug eradicators or vengeful traffickers.

Residents say there are no local users. They hate the taste of the bitter paste, which they sometimes rub into their gums to sooth an aching tooth.

It all goes for export, a lucrative business mostly run by the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to the DEA’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexico produces nearly half of the heroin found in the United States, up from 39 percent in 2008. While Afganistan is by far the world’s largest producer, it largely sends to markets in Europe and Asia.

Mexican government seizures of opium and eradication of poppy plantations have skyrocketed in recent years. The trends are consistent: Opium paste seizures in Mexico were up 500 percent between 2013 and 2014; poppy field eradications were up 47 percent; and seizures of the processed drug increased 42 percent. Along the U.S. border they are three times what they were in 2009.

Mexican heroin has become cheaper and more powerful at a time when Americans hooked on pharmaceutical opiates are looking for an affordable alternative. Combined with dangerous additives like fentanyl, a synthetic opiate also produced in Mexico, it is blamed for a wave of new addictions and overdoses in the U.S. Heroin deaths doubled from 2011 to 2013, while deaths from cocaine and prescription opiates remained steady, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It used to be that Mexican cartels shipped brown heroin from Colombia along with their home-grown black tar. But all producers are making the high-grade white now, and Mexican criminal gangs have learned that they can increase their profits exponentially if they manage the whole production chain, as with methamphetamines, which they also control from precursor to user.

The Sinaloa cartel farms out most production of opium paste to smaller traffickers, according to growers, law enforcement and drug-trafficking experts interviewed by the AP. That kind of decentralized system is a recipe for setting Guerrero’s small, feuding drug gangs, the Rojos, Pelones, Guerreros Unidos and others, against each other.

Since 2012, Guerrero has been Mexico’s most violent state. But only recently has it gotten world attention, when 43 college students disappeared last September and are assumed murdered by the Guerreros Unidos, who had close ties to the mayor in the town of Iguala and reportedly viewed the students as a rival gang.

The growers won’t say which gang buys the opium paste they produce on small plots. But a buyer affiliated with the local gang lives in almost every village, acting also as a lookout. Most can be identified by the short-wave radios they carry in a region far from telephone lines or cellular towers.

When the poppy plants finish flowering about three months into the winter growing season, a farmer armed with a razor-sharp, thumb-scorer and a metal scraping pan can collect 300 grams of opium paste, worth 4,000 pesos (more than $275 USD), in a single day.

The price for the relatively low-quality marijuana the farmers used to grow at lower elevations has fallen, possibly because of the legalization and medical use of higher-quality U.S. marijuana. Most law enforcement officials say it’s still too early to document an impact. But the farmers see a change. They only get about 250 pesos (about $17 USD) per dried, pressed kilogram (2.2 pounds) of marijuana, compared to 13,000 pesos (nearly $900 USD) per kilo of opium paste.

One wiry farmer with a joking manner and a baseball cap noted that’s more than he could make in a month at any legitimate job, if there were any legitimate jobs around. But they can lose a season’s work in a few minutes to the government helicopters that spray powerful herbicides on any fields they find.

Towering pine and fir trees on the hillsides help shield the poppy fields from view, and some of the mountain villages that protect their forests from illegal logging do so to hide their fields.

But they are detectable to the experienced eye, rare spots of green in the winter, when most other crops have been harvested. Since they use gravity-fed irrigation systems from mountain streams, they are usually near creek beds, with black plastic tubing bringing the water down to drip or spray systems at each plant.

The herbicide kills both the poppies and anything around them. No one in these villages has been told what it is. And it can kill or damage local Ocote pine trees, allowing beetles to move and attack the weakened trees, and then neighboring trees, farmers said.

“The money the government spends on aerial spraying would better be spent on long-term development projects,” Nava Reyna said.

When the buyer stocks enough opium paste from the farmers, he calls his cartel bosses to have it picked up and taken for processing at a lab.

From the Guerrero mountains, most of the opium paste is shipped to wholesale collection points like Iguala, a city at the crossroads of several highways, including the interstate from Acapulco on the Pacific Coast to Mexico City. There it is packed aboard passenger buses for “shotgun” smuggling to labs sometimes as far as the U.S. border. Once the paste becomes heroin, it is moved like any other drug in cars, trailers, buses, and mules across the border to the U.S. market.

There are no mega-labs for heroin, unlike those for meth. Though there are raids, they’re generally small and they don’t make news.

Many farmers say they would like to give up poppy cultivation and plant legitimate crops, in part because of the bloodshed the trade has brought.

Some growers are trying. In two of the three self-admitted opium growing villages the AP visited, residents have tried planting avocados, a crop that can bring cash income at similar altitudes in the neighboring state of Michoacan. They have also built trout ponds.

But the trout are small because of a lack of food, and avocados take at least seven years before they yield a viable amount of green, shiny fruit.

One farmer proudly showed off the 2- and 3-year old avocado trees he had planted on his steep hillside plot of about 20 acres. Because the trees can produce for four or five decades, he may someday have a plot his children and grandchildren can make a living from.

But cultivation is expensive. So meanwhile, the farmer walked further down his plot, into a narrow creek valley, where his “flower garden” grows. He waited to score his bulbs until noon, “because the sun draws the gum out.”

“This,” he said, pointing to the poppy bulb he has just scribed with a cutting tool to let the sap leak out, “is what finances that” he said, pointing uphill to the avocado trees.

TIME Aviation

Balloonists Break World Record with Pacific Ocean Crossing

The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images A hot-air balloon of the U.S. balloonist Troy Bradley and Russian Leonid Tiukhtyaev soars in Saga, Japan, on Jan. 25, 2015

The U.S.-Russian duo are set to land in Mexico on Saturday after taking off from Japan a week ago

When Troy Bradley and Leonid Tiukhtyaev land in Mexico on Saturday in their large helium balloon Two Eagles, they will have broken at least one and possibly two world records.

After setting out from Japan on Sunday and flying across the Pacific, the duo are on course to set new records for longest distance flown as well as longest duration in a helium balloon, the BBC reports.

Bradley and Tiukhtyaev needed to surpass a 1981 distance record of 5,208 miles by 1% (which put their target at 5,260 miles) in order to lay claim to the first record, which they did on Thursday according to a tweet from the team’s account. The record for longest duration, set in 1971, is 137 hours, five minutes and 50 seconds.

The American-Russian pair had originally planned to land in the U.S. or Canada, but bad weather forced them to change course.

[BBC]

TIME Infectious Disease

Five Workers at Disneyland Have Been Diagnosed With Measles

Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
H. Lorren Au Jr.—AP Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

Unvaccinated workers who came into contact with them have been asked to take paid leave

Five employees at Disneyland, California have been diagnosed with measles, bringing the total number of cases in the outbreak up to 53.

All workers who have come into contact with the five have been asked to show vaccination records or do a blood test, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Those who have not been vaccinated have been asked to go on paid leave until their health status can be confirmed.

Earlier this month, nine cases of measles were confirmed in two California-based theme parks, and in Utah from people who had visited the resorts between Dec. 17 and 20.

Since then, the disease has spread across three other states and to Mexico.

[LAT]

TIME Mexico

Gang Member Held After Disappearance of 43 Mexican Students

Protestors and family of 43 missing students from Guerrero State in Mexico march to protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014 in Mexico, City.
Brett Gundlock—;Getty Images Protestors and family of 43 missing students from Guerrero State in Mexico march to protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014 in Mexico, City.

A purported hitman, Felipe Rodríguez Salgado may add more details to a tale of endemic corruption and endless gang warfare in Mexico

Mexican authorities have detained the leader of the criminal group that prosecutors say killed 43 college students and burned their bodies.

Felipe Rodríguez Salgado is believed to be a gang hitman who ordered the killers to remove all traces of the crime, the New York Times reported.

The case has roiled Mexico in the past months, exposing the depth of police corruption and criminal infiltration in the country’s politics. Police say 43 students were arrested by municipal police in the southern city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero in September. According to Mexican authorities, the city’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, handed them over to an organized crime gang called Guerreros Unidos, who killed the students.

The students were in college and training to be teachers. Their families have questioned whether the students are dead, as only one has been identified in a special laboratory in Austria. A new search for the students began near Iguala on Friday.

Read More: Mexico’s Nightmare

Mayor Abarca and his wife, who are believed to be closely linked to the Guerreros Unidos, fled to Mexico City, where they were arrested. Abarca was charged with kidnapping on Tuesday, in connection with the students’ disappearance.

The case has challenged President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has sought to turn attention to the country’s economy.

Read More: How the Disappearance of 43 Students Has Tested Mexico’s President

TIME Accident

Disney to the Rescue After a Man Falls Overboard from Another Cruise Ship

A Disney drama on the high seas

A 22-year-old man had a dramatic rescue at sea when he fell overboard from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship and was picked up by a Disney Magic cruise around five hours later.

A passenger onboard the Disney cruise raised the alarm when he heard cries for help in the ocean at about 6.30 a.m. on Jan. 8, and a lifeboat was deployed to save the flailing man, CNN reports.

Video of the dramatic rescue was taken by passenger David Hearn and shows the man barely visible in the swell and an orange lifeboat coming to his rescue.

The man fell into the waters off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico, but it is not clear how he came to be in the water. He was taken to hospital and was said to be in good condition before being flown back to his home in the U.S.

[CNN]

TIME risks

These Are the Geopolitical Risks You Won’t Have to Fear in 2015

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.
Reuters Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in Syria, June 30, 2014.

TIME's foreign affairs columnist lists the global threats that everyone is scared of—but that you shouldn't be

Sometimes, the future can be easy to predict. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will continue to terrorize the Middle East and North Africa. Vladimir Putin’s Russia won’t back down in Ukraine or quit lashing out against the West. And of course, there will also be plenty of geopolitical risks that will come out of nowhere, like the sudden volatility in global oil markets.

Yet sometimes the biggest surprises are the false alarms—the overrated risks that end up nowhere near as disastrous as everyone assumed. They’re what I call a ‘red herrings’: risks that are largely expected to materialize, but that I predict it won’t pan out in 2015.

In a world where we get whipsawed by headlines and hyperbole, risks both real and overblown, it’s important to make bold predictions for some of the so-called major threats that won’t disrupt the world—at least not the way we think. I’ve outlined the biggest four.

1. The Islamic State

In 2015, the influence of ISIS will continue to grow. It has become the most powerful terrorist group in the world, eclipsing al-Qaeda, with funds and fresh recruits flowing in rapidly. As a brand, as a terrorist organization and as a regional menace, ISIS is on the rise.

But as a sovereign state, ISIS will not achieve similar success in 2015. The group will fail to expand the territory under its direct control, and it’s even likely to cede ground in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., potent Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga forces, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal forces will combine to contain the Islamic State’s power over the next year. Even though its influence will prove long-lasting, ISIS will not replicate the stunning military successes it demonstrated in the summer of 2014, nor create a caliphate that can be sustained over the long term.

2. Asia Nationalism

In Asia, strong, nationalistic leaders can seem like a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Take Japan and China, with their conflicting claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The animosities run deep: in a recent Pew Research poll, only 7% of Japanese held a favorable view of China, while just 8% of Chinese viewed Japan positively.

At least for 2015, however, pragmatic restraint should prevail. Stronger, more popular leaders in four of Asia’s key economies—China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and even Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo—all have their hands full with long-overdue economic reforms. With their focus turned to home, they have good reason to avoid foreign distractions, improve their regional economic ties, keep security relations in balance and contain any inevitable flare-ups. There will be scuffles, but don’t expect soaring tensions between the economic powerhouses of Asia.

3. Petrostates

There’s no way to ignore the relentless slide in oil prices, which have fallen by more than half since June. For consumers enjoying cheaper gasoline, it’s a welcome relif. For countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran—authoritarian petrostates that rely on oil exports as an economic lifeline—there’s a growing expectation that both their geopolitical weight and even their internal stability could be severely compromised in 2015.

It’s unlikely to happen. We’ll probably see a modest recovery in oil prices, but even if we don’t, massive cash reserves give many of these countries a lot of room for maneuver in the short-term. After all, Saudi Arabia has contributed to the oil price collapse by opting against a production cut. Nor will their foreign policies budge much: cheaper oil won’t make Russia pull out of Ukraine or Iran accept worse terms in nuclear negotiations. The notable exception is Venezuela, which may very well default if oil prices remain low. Yet in 2015, don’t expect petrostates to die out.

4. Mexico

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has his hands full. He’s fighting off accusations of financial impropriety involving his wife and his finance minister. Economic growth has been anemic. Many Mexicans, outraged by the murder of 43 college students who were handed over to drug lords by a local mayor, feel that the government hasn’t lived up to its commitments to improve security.

Despite the storm clouds, though, it should be a reasonably positive year for Mexico. Pena Nieto still has the popularity and the determination to push forward with economic reforms in the telecom and energy sectors. The President’s weakness has mainly benefited the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), which generally supports his agenda. If he can make progress on his reforms, it will have a huge impact on Mexico’s productivity and competitiveness, which will help attract large-scale investment from abroad. Combine that with an economic rebound in the U.S. as well as improving cross-border trade, inbound investment and tourism numbers, and Mexico could be a bright spot for 2015.

* * *

Of course, for every false alarm, there are plenty of real and underappreciated threats. If pessimism suits you better, my last column focuses on the ten biggest risks of 2015.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser