Mar 20, 2017

The Drug War: Supporters Say Mexico Couple Wrongly Accused


Supporters protest alleged unlawful detentions of 
Luis Quintana and Ilse Elizabeth Ramirez



The Drug War: Supporters say Zihuatanejo couple wrongly accused

Special to the Digie Zone Express
Photos courtesy of Hercilia Castro
By Kent Paterson/Correspondent
ZIHUATANEJO, MEXICO - Imagine being informed by a Facebook news site that your loved one has been arrested as a gangster. 
That's what happened to the families of Luis Angel Quintana and Ilse Elizabeth Ramirez. 
The residents of the Mexican tourist town of Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, were stunned to learn second hand that their relatives had been picked up in a Feb. 12 police-military operation and accused of serious charges related to organized crime. 
Michell Quintana said she first found out about the arrests of her brother Luis Angel, 26, and his girlfriend Ilse Elizabeth, 27, from a cousin who read the news on Facebook the night of Feb. 12 and immediately contacted her.  
"We are still in shock. We can't believe he's been detained. He doesn't know (the other suspects). He's focused on his music, his group," the sister said.
First meeting in high school, Ilse and Luis are respected members of Zihuatanejo society. Luis is the bass player for Expresion Immune, a local rock group popular among both locals and the many foreigners who visit or live in the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo area.
Gaviana described his sister as the first in his family to successfully pursue a professional career and land a job with a bank. For two years, Ilse lived in Playa del Carmen on the Maya Riviera south of Cancun but recently returned to Zihuatanejo, where she moved in with Luis.
"She's worked and studied since she was very young," the older brother said. She's the only one who's achieved a career in our family. She had to leave Zihuatanejo because it was difficult here. She comes back and everything is taken away."
Luis and Ilse were considering marriage when their lives were turned upside down on Feb 12, according to Quintana.
In interviews, Quintana and Ramirez said relatives headed to the local headquarters of the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) the same evening of the arrests but were informed that the detainees had been moved to a prison near Acapulco. Neither Luis Quintana nor Ilse Ramirez had been allowed to make a phone call home prior to the transfer, according to their sister and brother.
Luis and Ilse were living together in a modest apartment in Zihuatanejo when their building was raided the morning of Sunday, February 12, after a patrol of Guerrero state police reportedly spotted a taxi with armed men and pursued the vehicle to the living complex.   In an official statement, the PGR said AR-15, AK-47 and Uzi automatic weapons in addition to bullets and clips were discovered inside the complex. 
According to the federal agency, nine people, six men and three women were detained on illegal weapons charges and jailed in Acapulco. Two of the detainees were former municipal cops, the PGR said. 
Some press accounts linked the detainees to the Guerrero Guard, one of several organized crime groups battling for control of Zihuatanejo and the Costa Grande of Guerrero state.
But Quintana and Ramirez insist that their siblings, who had recently moved into the apartment, lived separately from the other suspects, did not know the rest of the detainees and were not involved in delinquent activities.
"I don't think it's just about the PGR involving innocent people, even though proof of of innocence has been shown," Quintana said, detailing that work documents, personal testimonies and even a fingerprint test of the confiscated weapons all attested to the innocence of Luis and Ilse. 
The apartment building where Quintana and Ramirez were arrested was identified as belonging to Francisco Guido, a nephew of the current mayor of Zihuatanejo, Gustavo Bello. Guido was not charged with any crime and his property not seized, an action Mexican authorities sometimes take following drug raids.
Pressed on the issue, Mayor Bello told reporters in Zihuatanejo last month that he would help provide legal support to Quintana and Ramirez.
"I am going to support them as a lawyer, as a human being, but the mayor as such has nothing to do with this," Bello was quoted in the Acapulco-based Internet news site Laplazadiario.com
More than one month after they were arrested, Quintana and Ramirez remain detained in Acapulco without bail under a Mexican law, el arraigo, that allows the government to hold suspected individuals for up to 90 days before a decision is made whether or not to proceed with criminal prosecution.
If there is any bright light in an obscure spot, the couple has been treated relatively well by custodians and inmates and not suffered torture, as is frequently the case with detainees in Mexico, Ramirez said.
The Movement for Luis and Ilse
Luis and Ilses' arrests have inspired a support movement that's gone international. Since February, public protests, petitions and benefit concerts have demanded the couple's release. Posters for a February 26 march that called for justice are still visible on the streets.
Zihuatanejo's world-renowned musical couple, Gabriela and Rodrigo, whose gigs include a performance at Barack Obama's White House, are among the musicians who are pitching in their creative energy see Luis and Ilse free. 
A link to a change.org petition on Zihuatanejo.net, an Internet site and message board popular with expats, snowbirds and tourists, has garnered more than 700 signatures.  
Publicity about the case of Isle and Luis sparked debate on the message board about Article 33, the prickly section of the Mexican Constitution that prohibits the involvement of foreigners in the country's politics. Article 33 was invoked during the 1990s in the deportations of foreigners immersed in solidarity movements with Chiapas' Zapatistas.
Writing on the message board, site administrator Rob Whitehead took issue with a view that Article 33 applied to Ilse and Luis' case. Although Whitehead cautioned against foreigners participating in marches, he said other actions were appropriate. 
"We can sign the petition for their release. We can continue to donate to their funds. We can make others aware of their plight. I and others feel the more light that is shone upon this, the more the Gov't will need to take action to rectify the situation," Whitehead wrote.
For Gaviani Ramirez, the welcome support has not yet reached critical mass.  Many local people are still afraid to stick out their necks, he said. Ramirez suspects his phone was tapped, and finds it curious that he could not post on Ilse's Facebook for a week after her arrest. A quick review of recent events quickly reveals why many might be reluctant to speak out against a situation smacking of injustice.  
Violent backdrop to the Feb. 12 arrests
If Luis and Ilse had lived in another place at another time, it's unlikey they would be sitting in jail. But beautiful Zihuatanejo, graced with breezy palms, spectacular sunsets, tantalizing hummingbirds and some of the warmest souls on the planet, is also a highly coveted piece of geography, a point of convergence where sea lanes funnel cocaine, highways transport the products of clandestine synthetic drug labs and roads winding down from the opium-rich Southern Sierra Madres deliver King Heroin to the world beyond.  
Nearby, the port of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, looms ever more important in the nexus of South America-China-Mexico-U.S. commerce, while deposits of gold and silver are eyed in the same mountains where plantings of opium poppies flourish. The illicit drugs that head from the Costa Grande to the addict veins of the USA also provide the scrapings of the bag for the narco-menudeo, or street level drug market, in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.
In short, there's money to be made in this burg. Not surprisingly, violence has flared over the golden goodies. In February and March, accounts from the Mexican press and local residents reported running gun battles between different organized crime groups, the kidnapping of Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo's representative in Zihuatanejo, public executions, and the dumping of a body in front of city hall.
The Guerrero daily El Sur reported at least 25 gangland-style homicides in the municipality from Jan. 1 to March 18. Despite frequent patrols of heavily-armed soldiers, marines, state police and municipal cops, law-breaking continues. Around town, a few banners demanding "Peace with Order" are still on display from a business owners' one day work stoppage last year. 
Violence in Zihuatanejo and Guerrero has undermined the possibility of social movements to freely act as well as the ability of reporters to cover them. After a spate of gunplay the weekend of March 10-12, supporters of Ilse and Luis cancelled a march they were contemplating for that Sunday. According to Michell Quintana, the rising insecurity made it too risky to stage a public demonstration.
Journalist Hercilia Castro, who's reported on the region for La Jornada, Laplazadiario and other publications for many years, says she's noticed a shift in the nature and tone of demonstrations, with less people willing to identify themselves and more having to obtain the prior "permission" of shadowy forces to express themselves in the streets.
"This speaks to the degree of deterioration" Castro said. The Guerrero reporter also cited an instance in which she was openly warned not to take photos in a town up the coast from Zihuatanejo.
"How can I work as a journalist and not take photos?" Castro questioned. "I felt bad."
In an extreme but far from singular example of press suppression, Guerrero journalist Cecilio Pineda was murdered March 2 in Ciudad Altamirano, a town on the other side of the Southern Sierra Madres from Zihuatanejo. 
Based in the narco-saturated Tierra Caliente, Pineda was known for his drug-related stories and postings on Facebook. Almost immediately prior to his murder, Pineda posted a video denouncing the probable collision of police and politicians with a criminal outfit called Los Tequileras.
Pineda had suffered an attack in 2015 and was assigned police protection for a time, but apparently decided to stay in Tierra Caliente. Quoted in El Sur, Guerrero State Prosecutor Javier Olea stated that Pineda was "definitely" murdered by organized crime. The investigation of Pineda's murder has been assumed by the PGR, but no arrests have been made until now. For the umpteenth time, reporters staged protests in Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Chilpancingo and Iguala.
According to Mexico's official National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH), 122 journalists have been murdered in the country since 2000. The latest victim was Ricardo Monlui Cabrera, gunned down in front of his family March 19 in the southern state of Veracruz.
In a statement following Monlui's murder, the CNDH reminded authorities of the human rights commission's earlier recommendation that the government "create the necessary conditions so journalists can do their work without being subjected to any type of threats."
Impact on families
Both Quintana and Ramirez consider the predicament of their siblings as part of the bigger picture in Mexico. The jailing of Isle and Luis has emotionally, physically and economically devasted two families, the siblings said.
Forced to spend time away from home, the parents have lost work, relatives have suffered sickness and sleeplessness, and costs for legal and living expenses (Ilse and Luis must pay for food and water in jail) have piled up. Quintana said she is now behind in her classes. 
"It is hard for people like us with few resources," the 20-year-old university student said. "(Officials) are not only ruining (Luis and Ilses') lives, but those of the whole family."
Admitting he had been fatalistically resigned about other causes before the detention of his sister and her boyfriend, Ramirez said the incident has "opened my eyes" and forced him to take action.
"If we are in this situation, what awaits the next generation?" he reflected. "Until it happens to you, you don't know where you are at. We've had kidnappings, disappearances and femicides...we supposedly live in a democracy. I have my rights. I demand that the governor, the federal government get involved. We are citizens. Without us, the politicians are nothing and we are nothing without them."
Quintana vowed the campaign to free and clear Luis and Ilse would press forward even in adverse conditions. "We're defending them and defending them and won't stop until it's shown they are innocent and their names aren't smeared. (Officials) are ruining their reputations," she charged.
(end)
Kent Paterson, a journalist-author, is an expert on border issues and Mexico. He is former editor of Frontera NorteSur.