Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mexico’s CNDH: Soldiers Killed 15 in Tlatlaya Massacre

Yet another version has emerged of the events surrounding the death of 22 suspects at the hands of soldiers in the town of Tlatlaya on June 30. For two months, both state and federal officials denied that any wrongdoing had occurred, saying that all the victims had died in a shootout even as local and international press reported on witnesses’ claims that all but one of the victims had been executed.

This continued until late September, when Mexico’s Defense Ministry (SEDENA) announced the arrest of eight personnel in connection with the death (this has since risen to 16). Two weeks later, the office of the Attorney General (PGR) announced that four soldiers would be prosecuted  for the alleged murder of eight suspects, while the remaining 14 had been killed in an exchange of gunfire.

Now, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has turned this story on its head. In a summary of the group’s own investigation (.pdf)  released yesterday, CNDH President Raul Plascencia called on the SEDENA, PGR and the government of Mexico state to widen their inquiries into the Tlatlaya killings, saying that it had established that soldiers executed at least 12 and probably 15 of the 22. Contrary to the military’s claims, the initial firefight lasted no more than ten minutes, as the suspects surrendered quickly. As Animal Politico reports, the CNDH accused the soldiers of rearranging their bodies after the incident in order to make the deaths fit the official story.

It remains to be seen how the government will respond to the CNDH’s non-binding recommendations, but the continued absence of the 43 disappeared students in Guerrero and the continued discovery of unrelated mass graves in the area do not exactly inspire confidence in Mexican authorities.

News Briefs
  • The AFP reports that U.S. State Department source has said that the Obama administration is open to the idea of collaborating with Cuban officials to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. "We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak. Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa," the source reportedly told the news agency.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s apparent slight surge in the polls recently, becoming the latest U.S. media outlet to profile the president’s support base among the rural and urban poor.
  • As the search for Mexico’s missing students drags on and new graves are being uncovered, the Associated Press reports on Mexico’s difficulty with identifying remains and the slow pace of documenting disappearances.
  • In an op-ed for the New York Times, Clarin opinion editor Fabian Bosoer and historian Federico Finchelstein criticize a new deal reached between the Argentine and Russian governments that will pave the way for a Spanish language version of the state-owned Russian news agency RT to air in the South American country. To the authors, the agreement is an example of what they describe as a regional march towards “Putin’s approach to media freedom,” in which Latin America’s populist governments are increasingly becoming hostile to independent journalism.
  • InSight Crime offers an update on Mexico’s controversial decision to legalize the so-called “self-defense” militias in Michoacan state, noting that the recent death of a militia leader lends weight to claims that officials have failed to properly equip the groups and bring them into the ranks of the military’s Rural Defense Corps.
  • McClatchy reports on opposition to the Australian El Dorado gold mining project in El Salvador, a mine that environmentalists say would cause devastating environmental harm to affected communities. The future of the mine is being decided by a World Bank tribunal in DC, which is expected to issue a ruling sometime early next year.
  • The Washington Post reports on the campaign efforts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her challenger Aecio Neves in the latter’s home state of Minas Gerais, noting that his record as governor there has been both attacked by critics and applauded by supporters.
  • The Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss profiles the reactions to the Colombian peace negotiations in Havana among conflict victims, finding that despite all they have endured, many of Colombia’s 6.7 million victims are more interested in reconciliation and peace than revenge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cuba Calls for U.S. Cooperation on Ebola

Cuba’s commitment to fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa -- a product of its longstanding emphasis on medical diplomacy -- has earned applause in recent days from some unexpected sources, including Secretary of State John Kerry.  On Friday, Kerry briefly touched on Cuba’s humanitarian efforts, noting that “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals [to Ebola-stricken nations]— and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” 

The following day, state media on the island published a column by Fidel Castro in which the former ruler wrote that the Cubans “will happily cooperate with U.S. personnel in this task, not in search of peace between these two states which have been adversaries for so many years, but rather, in any event, for World Peace, an objective which can and should be attempted.”

Both Kerry and Castros’ remarks were picked up in a New York Times editorial on Sunday, which also described the potential for the U.S. (“the chief donor in the fight against Ebola”) and Cuba (“the boldest contributor”) to complement each other’s work in West Africa. “While the United States and several other wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds, only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field,”  the NYT noted.  

At the very least, the paper called for infected Cubans to be given treatment at a U.S. military health center in Liberia. This gesture would be especially important given that, according to CNN, Cuban healthcare workers in West Africa have agreed not to be repatriated to Cuba for treatment if they are infected, in order to avoid spreading the illness.

Yesterday, Raul Castro opened a door to such collaboration. At an ALBA summit on the Ebola crisis in Havana, the Cuban president echoed his older brother’s words. Cautioning that humanitarian work should not be “politicized,” he vowed that Cuba is “willing to work shoulder to shoulder with all other countries, including the United States.”

The invitation is significant in that it provides the Obama administration with an opening to seize on all the recent praise of Cuba’s efforts, improving the fight against Ebola as well as strengthening relations with Havana.

So far, however, such a move seems unlikely. The Miami Herald reports that a U.S. State Department spokeswoman refrained from commenting on whether U.S.-Cuba cooperation on Ebola would be possible, only saying that Cuba was making a “significant contribution.”

The Herald also has more on the ALBA bloc summit, which ended with member nations adopting a 23-point resolution committing them to launch public health campaigns, step up screening at border checkpoints and airports and create “specialized teams” to craft a national strategy to the disease in the event that it crosses the Atlantic.

News Briefs
  • A new poll on Brazil’s presidential field by Datafolha suggests that President Dilma Rousseff has gained some ground on her challenger Aecio Neves. The poll found 52 percent for Rousseff, compared to 48 percent for Neves. While the president’s lead is still within the margin of error, Veja notes that this is the first time that her support has been higher than Neves’ since the runoff phase of the race.
  • Also on the Brazilian elections, Michael Shifter offers an interesting analysis of the race in Foreign Policy. While both Neves and Rousseff have hurled accusations of corruption and nepotism at each other in the past three face-to-face debates, Shifter claims there has been relatively little discussion of their policy differences. This, he says, is due to the fact that there are remarkably few differences between the two, and their divisions “are more like those between Old Labour and New Labour in Britain.”
  • In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Folha columnist Antonio Prata criticizes what he sees as his compatriots’ collusion with everyday corruption and low-level tax evasion schemes, even as they criticize politicians for more egregious versions of the same actions.
  • Panama has suspended a Supreme Court justice accused of using his proximity to former President Ricardo Martinelli to his own economic benefit, charges that have been bolstered by the revelation that he owns multiple luxury apartments that are seemingly outside his official pay range.
  • Analyst James Bosworth takes a look at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s flagging popularity, with a new Datanalisis poll showing that 30 percent approve of his administration and 68 percent do not. Even more telling is the fact that 82 percent of Venezuelans say the country is not heading in a positive direction.
  • In an update of the race for OAS Secretary General, yesterday the government of Argentina officially endorsed Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro for the job, El Observador reports. Argentina joins Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and -- of course -- Uruguay, meaning the entire Southern Cone is united behind the candidate.
  • The local chapters of international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International voted over the weekend to elect the group’s next head, choosing Peruvian lawyer José Ugaz over French businessman Pascal Lamy. Ugaz received an endorsement from The Economist last week, which characterized him as the bolder choice of the two candidates, representing “the activist approach.”
  • The Miami Herald looks at a planned Clinton Global Initiative event in Miami this December, which former President Bill Clinton is set to unveil later today. The event is slated as an opportunity to reflect on the 20 years since the first Summit of the America, and as a way for policymakers and experts to assess what the next 20 years holds for the Americas.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bolivia: a ‘Drug Hub’ of the Americas?

While the United States criticizes Bolivia for permitting coca cultivation for cultural and medicinal purposes, authorities there have held up record-low levels of coca growth as proof that the Andean country has adopted an unorthodox but successful approach to fighting drug trafficking.  

However, critics of Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” policy have responded by pointing to the prevalence of corruption and a rise cocaine smuggling networks. In a stimulating new investigation that is sure to fuel such arguments, InSight Crime’s Jeremy McDermott asserts that the country is becoming a “center for drug trafficking in South America,” a “fertile ground” for transnational organized crime.

The InSight Crime investigation, published to coincide with Bolivia’s October 12 general election, is the result of a recent visit to the country. There, McDermott spoke with Bolivian drug czar Sabino Mendoza, who asserted that the government of Evo Morales is effectively responding to the transnational criminal threat.  A Santa Cruz trafficker familiar with the country’s underworld disagreed, however, describing the ease with which judges and police can be bribed -- even contracted -- by criminal groups.

McDermott also witnessed Bolivia’s famously porous and corrupt prison system firsthand, which he describes in gritty detail in a profile of the “maximum-security” Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz. Particularly interesting is his rundown of the prices associated with bribes for certain privileges in the prison, including “fees” like a $1 charge for overnight visitors and a mandatory $250 per month to rent a cell.

In an analysis of Bolivia’s overall vulnerability to organized crime, McDermott asserts that the country is being impacted by changing drug trafficking patterns. These include the increasing numbers of Colombian networks shifting operations to Bolivia as a result of repression in their home country, and the emergence of Brazil and Argentina as lucrative markets for Bolivian cocaine and cocaine paste. According to McDermott, Bolivia is “the major supplier” of cocaine paste to these two countries. These trends are complicated by factors like police corruption and a lack of effective border controls, which are among ten risk factors identified by McDermott.

Since its publication last week, the InSight Crime piece has begun to make waves in Bolivia. News portal Eju.tv , for instance, cross-published the investigation in Spanish. The La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete has mischaracterized the report somewhat, with a title breathlessly exclaiming that McDermott had revealed that Bolivia “is the epicenter of drug trafficking.” La Prensa has seized on the piece’s reporting on the cocaine paste market in Argentina and Brazil. And Sunday’s edition of newspaper La Razon featured an overview of the investigation, noting McDermott’s characterization of drug trafficking as a primary challenge for Evo Morales’ new term.

There appears to have been no response from Bolivian anti-narcotics authorities, but any answer would likely be predictable. Officials in the country have in recent years consistently warned that they are fighting a growth of organized crime activity due to foreign “emissaries,” even as they deny that these groups are large or sophisticated enough to resemble “cartels.”

News Briefs
  • In other Bolivia news, electoral authorities yesterday officially declared President Evo Morales the winner of the October 12 presidential election, receiving 61 percent of the vote compared to 24.5 for Samuel Doria Medina. However, La Razon reports that the breakdown of the next Congress is still in doubt, and a final tally will not be available until after voting is re-held in 44 polling centers in Santa Cruz and Oruro departments. The paper also notes that two smaller opposition parties, the Bolivian Green Party and Movement Without Fear (MSM), fell short of the minimum 3 percent of the vote required to be recognized as official political parties.
  • The New York Times has the latest on Brazil’s emerging Petrobras corruption scandal, which allegedly involved the company paying kickbacks to leading politicians, primarily of the ruling Workers’ Party. If these allegations prove true, the paper claims that the scandal would dwarf even the infamous mensalão case.
  • The Wall Street Journal notes that the drought in São Paulo state has become a campaign issue ahead of Sunday’s second-round vote, with President Dilma Rousseff blaming her rival Aecio Neve’s Brazilian Socialist Democracy Party of adopting policies that led to the crisis.
  • The Miami Herald reports that health ministers from the ALBA governments are set to meet in Havana today to discuss a coordinate response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, just as countries around the region are imposing travel restrictions and screening passengers to prevent the spread of the disease.  Meanwhile, Cuba’s leading role in sending health workers to address Ebola has earned some rare praise from Secretary of State John Kerry. On Friday, as PRI reports, Kerry applauded Cuba’s efforts by remarking: “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals — and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” 
  • According to El Espectador, Colombia’s Attorney General has determined that the deaths of 34 members of the FARC-linked Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s and 1990s constitute crimes against humanity, meaning that they are not subject to statutes of limitations and can still be prosecuted. Semana magazine reports that Deputy Attorney General Jorge Perdomo told journalists that the state is committed to investigating these cases.  
  • Gustavo Gorriti of Peruvian investigative news site IDL-Reporteros looks at the resurgence of Shining Path rebels in the coca-growing VRAE region. Pointing to a copy he obtained of an internal strategy document written by the guerrilla group, Gorriti argues that the Shining Path is attempting a revival of its activities based on specific lessons learned from past failures.
  • More than three weeks after their disappearance, authorities in Mexico still have not located the 43 students who went missing after clashing with police in a protest against education reforms in Iguala, Guerrero. The NYT notes that officials say at least five mass graves have been uncovered nearby, but that none of the remains have been linked to the students. According to the paper, some analysts say the search is hampered by a lack of centralized authority in the country’s rural areas.
  • Mexico’s federal police have assumed control of 13 municipalities surrounding the town of Iguala. According to Milenio, all of the towns are in Guerrero state but one, located in neighboring Mexico state.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Look at Uruguay’s “No a la Baja” Campaign

In the face of rising insecurity, Uruguay’s conservative opposition succeeded in organizing a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility to take place alongside general election on October 26. If it passes, the measure would drop the age at which offenders could be tried as adults for serious crimes from 18 to 16.

Ever since mid-2012, when the campaign in favor of lowering the age of criminal responsibility succeeded in pairing the referendum with the upcoming election, it has been opposed by certain sectors of civil society. Local human rights groups like Proderechos, the Institute for Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR) and the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) argued that not only would the measure violate children’s rights and go against a more compassionate view of juvenile justice, but that it would also be ineffective at tackling insecurity. Official statistics show that less than 7 percent of all crimes are committed by teenagers, a figure that has remained stable even as crime has risen over the past decade.

Despite this logic, the measure remained largely popular. A November 2012 Cifra poll found that 64 percent of the population supported lowering the age of criminal responsibility. This makes sense considering that while Uruguay remains one of the safest countries in the Americas, the homicide rate has remained at a record high since 2012, and both violent and non-violent robberies have increased in recent years. 

Compared to elsewhere in the region, the country is behind only Venezuela in terms of the percentage who list insecurity as their greatest concern (36 compared to 47 percent).

Things looked bleak for human rights advocates in Uruguay until late 2013, when the coalition of groups who opposed the reform -- known as the “No a la Baja” Commission -- doubled their outreach efforts and launched a revamped multimedia campaign. Using playful, colorful imagery (see examples at www.noalabaja.uy) meant to invoke childhood and youth, the No a la Baja team began making its case to the public.

The effect of the appealing messaging and concentrated, coherent arguments on Uruguayan public opinion has been astounding. Support for No a la Baja began to snowball, building a movement that includes not only supporters of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition, but also the local UNICEF office, national trade union center PIT-CNT, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of Uruguay, and some youth factions of the opposition Colorado and National Parties. As an astute analysis of the campaign in La Diaria puts it, supporters of lowering the age of criminal responsibility have been “practically isolated” from joining in the public discussion of the issue.

The No a la Baja Commission convened a march through downtown Montevideo yesterday, and its massive turnout was a testimony to the campaign’s success. As leading dailies El Observador and El Pais report, tens of thousands of people participated in the march, with organizers putting their estimate at around 50,000.

The turnout seems to confirm what recent polls have been indicating: while the outcome of presidential elections is too close to call, it seems safe to say that the measure will not pass on October 26. A September 25 Cifra poll showed that support for the reform has dropped ten points since March 2014, from 58 percent to 48 percent, and while pollsters Factum and Equipos Mori still show slight majorities in favor of the reform, most analysts agree that it will likely fail.

News Briefs                         
  • In a new editorial, the New York Times looks at Evo Morales’ recent re-election as an example of an “unhealthy” trend for democracies in Latin America, noting the similarly extended run of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff squared off with her main challenger in upcoming elections, Aecio Neves, again yesterday in a televised debate. O Globo reports that both candidates exchanged allegations of nepotism and lying, a pattern that spokesmen from their respective campaigns say will continue until the October 26 runoff vote. After the debate, Rousseff appeared light headed and  had to sit out a period meant for candidates to field questions from journalists, the AP notes.
  • Brazil’s Petrobras scandal, in which leading politicians have been accused of taking kickbacks from the state-owned oil company, has so far been seen as a major obstacle to Rousseff’s re-election, and it is one of Neves’ favorite talking points. However, it appears the scandal has reached Neves’ PSDB party as well. According to O Globo, the former Petrobras director admitted yesterday to bribing PSDB President Sergio Guerra to back off from an investigation into the company in 2009.
  • Animal Politico reports that state lawmakers in Guerrero, Mexico have impeached Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who is accused of having a hand in the disappearance of 43 students there late last month.  Abarca’s whereabouts remain unknown.
  • Guatemalan candidate for OAS Secretary General Eduardo Stein spoke at the Wilson Center in DC yesterday, where he attempted to drum up support for his bid.  Spanish news agency EFE reports that Stein vowed that if elected, he would stop it from “being a mess,” calling attention to the fact that the OAS’ spare funding is currently divided among757 mandates. According to EFE, Stein promised to “choose those which truly represent the fundamental interests” of the region.  The news agency reports that Stein also said he has received the backing of five countries so far: El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador’s alleged support for Stein is notable given that the Uruguayan press has reported that Foreign Minister Luis Almagro has also been backed by the Central American country.
  • Colombia’s conservative -- and allegedly corrupt -- Investigator General Alejandro Ordoñez has seized on the recent news that the administration of Juan Manuel Santos allowed FARC head Timochenko to travel to Havana multiple times since peace talks began.  El Tiempo reports that Ordoñez sent a public letter to the president asking him to clarify the executive’s views of the legality of the visits, to which Santos has responded by implying that the official is overstepping his official functions.
  • A recent investigation by news site El Faro has revealed the destination of the Taiwanese donations that former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores has been accused of embezzling during his 1999-2004 term. According to the site, most of the $10 million went to the right wing party ARENA, which used it to support its own political initiatives as well as the presidential campaign of his successor, Tony Saca.
  • The killing of journalist Pablo Medina, who worked for Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color, yesterday has set off a wave of indignation over the government’s commitment to protecting media workers in the country, as the AP reports.  According to ABC, Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga has issued a statement promising that the government of Paraguay will investigate the murder to the fullest extent.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Venezuela Blames Lawmaker's Murder on 'Colombian Paramilitaries'

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has asserted that Colombian paramilitary groups were behind the murder of a young rising star in his party earlier this month, but questions remain about the official version of events.

Socialist Party (PSUV) lawmaker Robert Serra’s murder last month kicked off a wave of speculation over the motives behind the crime. The government has labeled the killing a “terrorist act” and insinuated that Serra been killed by right-wing elements, while some analysts (see InSight Crime, The Economist) have questioned whether left-wing collectives could be behind his death.

In recent days, authorities have arrested two suspects in the case, and President Maduro has made multiple promises to provide evidence of an opposition plot.

Last night he finally delivered. As Ultimas Noticias reports, Maduro presented security camera footage detailing the involvement of eight suspects in the murder. These included Serra’s bodyguard and a criminal ring with alleged ties to neighboring Colombia. The “intellectual author” of the murder, according to Maduro, was an unnamed “Colombian paramilitary.”

Despite the presentation of suspects involved in the murder, the official explanation of Serra’s death is light on details about a potential motive.  Maduro also said that authorities had discovered related plans to assassinate National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello and Education Minister Hector Rodriguez, but he was vague about the overall plot.  

So far the government seems to be satisfied with publicly chalking up Serra’s murder to the dark forces of “Colombian paramilitarism” and leaving it at that, at least for the moment.  The AP notes that the president doubled down on claims that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has links to groups conspiring against his government, though he did not provide any evidence.

An alternate version of the murder was put forward by leading pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional on Tuesday, in an investigation that cited anonymous sources familiar with the case. The paper also claimed that Serra had been betrayed by his bodyguard, but asserted that the incident was in fact a planned robbery gone awry. As proof, El Nacional reported that the assailants forced Serra to open up a safe containing an unspecified amount of dollars and two automatic rifles. Here the narrative falls apart, however, as the report claims Serra was stabbed “for unknown reasons,” and his female assistant was killed to silence any witnesses.

Obviously, both of these narratives are problematic. But considering the polarization of the country’s political and media landscapes, the full truth seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

News Briefs
  • Also on Venezuela, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz profile recent remarks by members of the opposition who have signaled their willingness to renew dialogue with the government, though the two note that the Maduro administration’s response to the Serra murder has likely hurt the potential for talks to restart anytime soon.  
  • The Wall Street Journal has the latest poll numbers in Brazil’s presidential race, noting that both Ibope and Datafolha show Aecio Neves and Dilma Rousseff in a technical tie. Both surveys show 45 percent for Neves and 43 percent for Rousseff.
  • Following up on Fidel Castro’s republication of the New York Times’ recent editorial endorsing an end to the U.S. embargo, the NYT has an analysis of Castro’s Granma column and its significance. As the Times points out, it is noteworthy that the former leader chose to leave in the paper’s criticism of the Castro regime as an “authoritarian government” that silences criticism.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is again flirting with drug policy reform in remarks to the international press. In a Reuters interview this week, the president told the news agency that lightening sentences on drug offenders was among several “steps we could take time to analyze.” Reuters reports that the president also remarked that a civil society commission launched to assess drug law reforms -- which released a preliminary report last month -- would have its final recommendations ready “in March or the second quarter of next year.”
  • Four days after Bolivia’s general elections, electoral authorities have finally declared President Evo Morales the official winner of the presidential race, beating  Samuel Doria Medina by nearly 60 to 26 percent. La Razon reports that ten percent of the ballot sheets in the legislative elections have not yet been counted, however, meaning that it is still unclear whether Morales’ MAS will obtain a two-thirds majority. The results so far suggest that the MAS falls just short of reaching this goal, albeit closer to it than exit polls indicated on Sunday.
  • Reuters also reports on the Perez Molina administration’s attempts to lobby the U.S. for more aid money to stem the northward flow of migration, noting that Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Morales said a promised $300 million to Central America was “nothing” considering the scale of the problem. Instead, Morales said that the U.S. should support a plan to spend $10 billion in the region over the next decade, saying the U.S. have an obligation to do so. “If they don't support it, the crisis will kick off again, you can count on it,” Morales told Reuters.
  • The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff writes that the fact that none of the 28 bodies belong to the students did not come as a surprise to many in Iguala, who are used to criminal groups using the area where the graves are being found as a dumping ground for bodies. As he notes, many Mexicans “are asking how the country can possibly tout its modernization efforts if it continues to be a place where gangsters casually kill and bury their victims.”
  • The Mexican military’s investigation into the alleged massacre of 22 suspects in Tlatlaya has deepened. According to Animal Politico, three officers -- including a brigadier general -- have been placed under house arrest in connection with the case, bringing the number of military personnel under investigation to 16.
  • Police in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday announced the arrest of 55 people associated with an illegal abortion ring, an operation linked to the recent deaths of two women who are believed to have died from complications from the procedure, NYT and O Globo report. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

‘Pirate’ Drug Policy States of the Americas: Bolivia, Uruguay, and…the U.S?

While a recent statement by top U.S. State Department drug official William Brownfield has been largely overlooked, it could have huge implications for the future of drug policy in the hemisphere.

In an October 9 press conference held in the wake of last month’s OAS Special Session on Drug Policy in Guatemala, Brownfield applauded the final resolution of the meeting for approaching the issue from the perspective of the “importance of public health, not just criminal justice.” The OAS summit was a disappointment for drug policy reform activists looking for a show of support for change ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016, but Brownfield said it had “good and productive debate.”

Brownfield’s statement went even further, as he explained to reporters that he had just outlined the current U.S. position on drugs to the UN ECOSOC’s Third Committee. From Brownfield  (with relevant bits highlighted):

In my statement, I laid out what we call our four pillars as to how we believe the international community should proceed on drug policy. First, the – respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions. Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions. The first of them was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies. Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies. And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations – not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain. Respect the conventions; flexible interpretation; tolerance for national polices; criminal organizations – that is our mantra.

It may not seem like much, but this is a massive change.  Just two years ago, the United States bitterly fought against Bolivia’s attempts to abandon the 1961Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and rejoin it with a reservation allowing coca cultivation for traditional uses. Now, Brownfield seems to be advocating the exact same approach to the Single Convention, allowing countries greater autonomy and flexibility in their interpretation of it. Of course, this likely has to do with the fact that Washington and Colorado state have legalized marijuana, and Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia look set to follow.

As well as for Bolivia, this is good news for Uruguay, which has argued that while its cannabis legalization law is out of step with international drug treaties, it is in line with the country’s international human rights commitments.  Presumably the new U.S. position will make it harder for the main drug treaty monitoring body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), to single out Uruguay for what INCB head Raymond Yans has called a “pirate attitude.”

It’s also interesting to note how Brownfield outlined the regional debate over drugs. Instead of framing it as “the prohibitionist United States vs. the rest of the hemisphere clamoring for debate,” which is the way many drug policy reform advocates see it, the State Department official drew different boundaries, placing the U.S. in the middle of a broader spectrum.  In response to a question from a reporter, Brownfield said the following:
My own approach to this is to say that there are two extremes in this international debate. One extreme is – are those that I call the strict prohibitionists who believe there should be no flexibility, no give whatsoever, that anything related to drugs and illicit drugs should be prohibited and subject to criminal sanctions. At the other extreme are what I would call the strict legalizers who say, literally, “Let us legalize everything and the problem will go away.” […]At one end, you have the Government of Uruguay. They have legalized marijuana and cannabis throughout the Republic of Uruguay. At other extremes, you have governments that I will not name, but that take a very hardline approach to drugs. You have some that have been pressing hard for reforms – Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala. You have one, the United States of America, that is wrestling with a situation in which some of its constituent parts, with names like Colorado or Washington State, have chosen to legalize marijuana, others have not, and we have a federal policy that is different from the state policies.

In reality the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the countries “pressing hard for reforms,” may not see Uruguay’s law as so radical. Mexican authorities have expressed interest in monitoring the impact of Uruguay’s law, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has backed legalizing medical marijuana and toyed with supporting full legalization, and Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina has even pressed for legalizing not only the cultivation of cannabis, but of opium as well.  These positions seem far closer to Uruguay’s allegedly “extreme” position on marijuana than that of the U.S. federal government.

News Briefs
  • Brazil’s runoff presidential candidates, President Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves, held their first one-on-one debate on television last night. Both O Globo and the Financial Times note that corruption scandals took center stage in the debate, with both candidates accusing the other of using bogus statistics and hiding corrupt ties.
  • The announcement comes after the head of the most powerful local criminal group, Guerreros Unidos, Benjamin Mondragon Perea, reportedly died after a firefight with security forces. As Excelsior and the L.A. Times report, authorities said that Mondragon killed himself upon seeing that he was surrounded by Federal Police.
  • As noted in yesterday’s brief, the Iguala students’ disappearances have raised pressure on the Mexican government to adopt an appropriate policy response.  In particular, a letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong last week has made a big splash in the Mexican press (see Excelsior,  Proceso, CNN Mexico and El Universal, which copied it in full). In it, HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco asserts that Mexican authorities need to deepen their commitment to investigating all forced disappearances, locating the victims, and prosecuting the perpetrators. Despite all of this advocacy, President Enrique Peña Nieto has so far been vague, only sending federal forces to Guerrero to assist with the search and making an ambiguous promise yesterday to strengthen security institutions in the country, as Milenio reports.
  • Guatemala’s El Periodico has published a new report claiming to be based on U.S. anti-drug intelligence, which alleges that high-level officials in the country’s National Police have deepened their criminal ties in recent years, to the point of stealing and reselling drug shipments. InSight Crime notes that the lack of specifics over the source of the report makes it hard to analyze, but that if true it would seem to point to the existence of a top-level corruption ring in Guatemala’s security forces, akin to Venezuela’s “Cartel de los Soles.”
  • The Economist profiles the recent murder of PSUV lawmaker Robert Serra, noting the holes in the government’s claims that he was assassinated by right-wing elements.
  • Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is apparently a fan of the New York Times’ recent editorial calling for the end of the U.S. embargo on the island. The AP notes that in a column published in state media on Tuesday, Castro quoted the editorial almost word for word, only leaving out “one sentence about his government’s release of political prisoners and another about U.S.-Cuban cooperation.”
  • Uruguay’s groundbreaking 2012 abortion law -- which made it the second country in Latin America after Cuba to decriminalize the procedure -- has seen a legal setback. According to El Pais, an administrative court yesterday suspended language in the law that obliges gynecologists to participate in abortion-related procedures, and authorizes them to provide women with information regarding maintaining the pregnancy. As the paper notes, the extent of medical workers’ rights to abstain from performing the procedure on moral grounds was a major element of the debate around the law, and yesterday’s ruling grants more autonomy to health professional workers in this regard.
  • The AP has picked up on some of the flak that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is facing in the wake of his recent lamentation that the Constitution does not provide the president with any vacation time. The AP notes that his complaint have earned Santos little sympathy in a country where “55 percent of the population works under the table without such benefits.” 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

As Outrage Grows in Guerrero, So Does Pressure for Police Reform

Demonstrations in the Guerrero capital of Chilpancingo over the 43 missing students in the Mexican state turned violent yesterday, after protesters set fire to the state capital building, El Universal and the AP report. There are no reports of injury, but the incident demonstrates that public outrage is growing as officials continue to work to identify the remains found in ten mass graves in Iguala.

Meanwhile, details continue to surface about the alleged criminal ties of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, as well as his corrupt influence over local police. McClatchy and Spain’s El Pais have recently published detailed overviews of the repeated accusations that Abarca -- along with his wife -- governed the city with an iron fist and ordered the assassination of political opponents. International observers are increasingly referring to the Iguala case as part of a trend of growing narco-influence in local government in the country (see El Pais, Christy Thornton for Al Jazeera English and journalist Ioan Grillo in an NYT op-ed).

Ever since the disappearances gained a nationwide and international profile, Guerrero authorities have been scrambling to come up with an appropriate policy response. Governor Angel Aguirre has capitalized on the incident to focus attention on local non-compliance with a “mando unico” agreement signed last May that granted state police control over law enforcement in a number of municipalities. The Iguala mayor signed the pact, but implemented it in name only, according to Aguirre.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which enjoys historic control over Guerrero, has also seized on the moment to bring up mando unico. National PRD leader Carlos Navarrete has said that his party will support a plan to concentrate greater police authority in state governments in Guerrero and other PRD-governed entities.  

The proposal has generated mixed reactions from security analysts and civil society, summed up nicely in a series of opinion columns featured today by newspaper Milenio.

For Lisa Maria Sanchez of Mexico Unido contra la Delincuencia, reformers should be more skeptical of mando unico. As she writes, “Centralization and militarization of public security are two risks that lurk behind the seemingly innocuous question about the fate of municipal police.” Instead of centralizing law enforcement authority, Sanchez argues in favor of keeping local control, while deepening official commitment to transparency and democratic governance.

CIDES researcher Jose Antonio Caballero Juarez asserts that “the idea of mando unico is neither good nor bad.” However he insists that the issue of local government corruption is more complex than the “dogma” of local vs. state police control, and that the focus should be on building community relationships and strong internal controls in local police forces.

According to Ernesto Lopez Portillo, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde), argues that the logic of mando unico is flawed. The problem in Mexico, he says, is not that local municipalities have too much control over the police, but that there is a lack of political will to properly commit to cleaning up police at all levels of government.  This is exacerbated, Lopez asserts, by government officials’ lack of awareness of international best practices regarding policing, which have in recent years emphasized the importance of local police authority.

News Briefs
  • The issue of police abuses in Mexico has dominated in international headlines recently, and yet another incident suggests it will stay that way for a least another news cycle. As the L.A. Times and Reuters report, police in Guerrero opened fire on a van full of university students on Sunday night after it failed to stop at a traffic checkpoint, injuring a German exchange student.
  • On Saturday, a radio announcer and activist representing a group of families compensation for being displaced by a dam in Sinaloa was murdered  during his weekly broadcast, which the AP describes as “the first on-air killing in recent memory in Mexico.”
  • After winning re-election on Sunday, Bolivian President Evo Morales has addressed concerns that he intends to stay in power after his next term ends. In an interview with the BBC, Morales said that he personally did not think it would be “necessary,” though he admitted that his MAS political movement might push to reform the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term.
  • Also in Bolivia, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has still not released a final tally of Sunday’s presidential vote. La Razon reports that the TSE’s goal was to submit a count of 70 percent of the ballots by Sunday, but that OAS observers say the process has been “extremely slow.” According to a count of 42.5 percent of the ballots released yesterday, Morales won by 53.7 percent compared to 30.3 percent for Samuel Doria Medina.  By comparison, exit polls on Sunday estimated roughly 60 percent of Bolivians voted for Morales and 25 for Doria Medina.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is quietly cutting imports in a bid to address foreign debt payments.  
  • The conventional wisdom for why President Dilma Rousseff is so strongly supported among poor Brazilians in the Northeast has been that it has to do with the success of the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program. But BBC Brasil notes that Rousseff’s support there goes far beyond Bolsa Familia, as her administration has been the first in years to address the interests of the historically poor and neglected region.
  • In the latest prison uprising to focus attention on overcrowding and poor security in Brazil’s prison system, prisoners in the Guarapuava detention facility have taken control of a Parana state prison and are currently in negotiation with authorities. The AP notes that the incident occurs in the same state where last month inmates beheaded two prisoners following a similar uprising.
  • Commenting on a recent World Politics Review article by Michael Shifter and Murat Dagli on what they describe as the “pragmatic authoritarian model” adopted in Ecuador and Bolivia, analyst James Bosworth reflects on the steady death of the tired “two lefts” narrative on Latin America. To the extent that a similar “elegant” narrative exists today for the region, he notes that today most analysts have gravitated toward describing it in terms of the success of the Pacific Alliance vs. the Mercosur and ALBA blocs, a framework that has its own problems and is similarly weakened by current economic data.