- - Monday, December 31, 2012

MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines have slain four gunmen who apparently were trying to steal the body of a Zetas cartel chieftain killed by the military a day before in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz.

The state government said the gunmen evidently wanted to take the body of Angel Enrique Uscanga, nicknamed “The Pokemon,” identified as the leader of the brutal gang in that region.

The gunmen shot at marines from a vehicle after they arrived late Friday in the city of Cordoba at the building, where authorities were keeping the bodies of Uscanga and four others who had died in a firefight with the military.

The marines shot back and killed the four armed men, said a government statement. Authorities confiscated a grenade and other weapons.

In October, Zetas cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano was shot by Mexican marines in northern Mexico, and his body was stolen from a funeral home 12 hours afterward.

It raised doubts in Mexico about whether the feared drug lord had really been killed, but officials said fingerprints and photographs taken before the theft proved he was slain.

Veracruz officials say Uscanga and the other four men had been killed in a confrontation with the military last Thursday, but the government didn’t offer many details of that gunfight other than it also happened in the city of Cordoba.

The marines there seized six rifles, a rocket and a rocket launcher.

Hundreds of marines were deployed to Veracruz in 2011 after drug violence began to rise as gangs allied to the Sinaloa Cartel began fighting the dominant Zetas, a paramilitary organized-crime group founded by ex-members of the Mexican special forces.

Men shoot 12, kill 1 at party in Monterrey

MEXICO CITY — A Mexican official said armed men stormed into a “quinceanera” party in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey and killed a man and injured 11 guests.

The Nuevo Leon state official said the gunmen arrived around midnight Saturday at the party for a girl’s 15th birthday, a traditional Latin American celebration much like a “Sweet 16.”

The gunmen were looking for a specific man, and once they found Julio Cesar Cruz inside the dance hall, they killed him, the official said.

“The friends and relatives tried to intervene and that’s why they were shot, too,” the official said. “Fortunately, the wounds were not serious.”

Eight victims have been released from the hospital, and three others are reported as being in stable condition. The official said the birthday girl was not injured in the attack.

Monterrey has been the scene of bloody turf battles between the Zetas and the Gulf cartels.

COLOMBIA

President’s brother speaks about peace talks

BOGOTA — A brother of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has revealed that the country’s largest guerrilla group initially had proposed to hold peace talks within Colombia or in neighboring Venezuela, rather than in Cuba.

In an article published in the newspaper El Espectador on Sunday, Enrique Santos said that the government’s team had insisted that the talks not be held in Colombia.

“We decided on Cuba for security and above all because it guaranteed confidentiality,” Mr. Santos wrote in the article.

Representatives of the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began discussions in Havana on Nov. 19 seeking a deal to end the country’s decades-old conflict.

They are taking a holiday break and are to resume talks Jan. 14.

Mr. Santos, a journalist and former director of the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, is not a member of the team involved in the current talks, though he has acted as an adviser to the government negotiators.

He revealed details of earlier discussions with the rebels starting in February 2011. He said he has been involved “in an irreversible way in this process.”

Mr. Santos said that one especially complicated matter was getting one of the rebel leaders, Jaime Alberto Parra Rodriguez, to make the trip to Cuba for those initial discussions.

Mr. Santos said the rebels were distrustful of the plans to shuttle away Mr. Parra Rodriguez, who is better known by the nom de guerre Mauricio Jaramillo or the nickname “El Medico.”

“It was very hard to convince the FARC to accept putting [Mr. Parra Rodriguez] on a helicopter supplied by the state,” Mr. Santos wrote.

“At the time of picking him up, he appeared guarded by more than 50 men armed to the teeth. In the end there was crying by women guerrillas and a farewell ceremony. That was the first big achievement: getting Jaramillo to Havana. That process lasted nearly a year.”

Mr. Santos said he and others arrived in Havana on Feb. 23, 2011, ahead of their first contacts with the guerrillas, and that after sitting together about 70 times, they finally signed a preliminary accord in August 2012 to launch the peace talks.

Until they reached that point, Mr. Santos said, “various times we were on the verge of breaking off” the discussions.

HAITI

Fire ravages portion of popular market

PORT-AU-PRINCE — A massive fire in Haiti’s capital has ravaged a portion of a popular marketplace where hundreds of vendors sold their wares.

Police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said Saturday that dozens of stalls at the Port Market in Port-au-Prince were burned to the ground and that few items were recovered.

He said authorities are investigating what caused the fire late Friday.

He says there are no reports of deaths or injuries.

The same market was destroyed in April 2010 just months after a devastating earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more homeless.

Vendors at that time said the fire was politically motivated, although police never determined the cause.

From wire dispatches and staff reports