Thursday, June 30, 2011

Guatemalan Electoral Court Rejects Torres's Presidential Campaign

An electoral court in Guatemala yesterday refused to recognize ex-first lady Sandra Torres’s bid for presidency in the country, citing a constitutional ban on family members of the president taking power. According to Guatemala’s Prensa Libre, the court has ruled that Torres divorced her husband in order to evade the constitutional prohibition, which disqualifies her as a candidate.

 The leadership of Torres’s National Union of Hope (UNE) held a press conference last night in which they claimed the party will appeal the ruling. According to UNE leader César Fajardo, the court’s decision was based primarily on media accounts, and amounted to speculation rather than a pure analysis of the legal facts of the case.

ElPeriodico reports that Guatemalan law requires an appeal to the electoral court to be resolved within 72 hours. If the ruling stands, then Torres and her party will be forced to appeal to the country’s Supreme Court. Even if Torres wins an appeal, however, her chances at winning the September elections are pretty slim.  As I noted in yesterday’s post, Torres is trailing her Partido Patriota rival Otto Perez in the polls by more than 30 points (41.2% to 15.1%). 

News Briefs

·         A study published in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases (the journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has found evidence which “strongly suggests” that Haiti’s cholera epidemic was transmitted by Nepalese members of the UN peacekeeping force. As the AP notes, the report’s release coincides with a major spike in the number of cholera cases in the country.
·         The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which was slated to occur on July 5 in Venezuela, was canceled yesterday due to Chavez’s poor health.  As Reuters reports, the summit will be postponed until later in the year. According to El Universal, the postponement comes as a major blow to Chavez. The paper claims that this demonstrates the “excessively centralized” nature of the international organization. While it’s true that the leader was a major driving force behind the organization, several other countries in the region expressed significant support for it, in the hopes that it could counter the regional hegemony influence of the United States.

·         As Mexico State prepares for its gubernatorial elections this Sunday, El Universal has the PRI’s Eruviel Avila way ahead of the other candidates, with polls predicting that he’ll win nearly 60% of the vote. Meanwhile, el Excelsior reports that the country’s Federal Electoral Institute is downplaying the pervasiveness of “narcocampaigns.”

·         New details have emerged about the June 24th kidnapping of several Central American migrants in Veracruz.  The priest who initially brought the case to the attention of officials says the group included 46 Salvadorans, 40 Hondurans, 39 Guatemalans, six Nicaraguans and several natives of Chiapas, Mexico, according to La Tribuna. The Mexican government, however, has found no evidence to support this claim. According El Milenio, the interior department's deputy secretary, Rene Zenteno, witntesses could only confirm that said two women, two men and a child were kidnapped.

·         ATF director Kenneth Melson has said he will testify before Congress about his role in the controversial Fast and Furious gun sting which allowed guns to cross the border into Mexico. Apparently the testimony was reached as part of a deal between Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the committee’s top Republican, Iowa's Charles Grassley. In exchange for the testimony, the Republicans will stop blocking three Obama administration nominees. The Daily Beast has more on this maneuver.

·         Responding to Florida Republican congressman Connie Mack’s oft-made claims that Venezuela should be added to the list of state sponsors of terror, this Tuesday the Venezuelan National Assembly voted to send an official statement of rejection to the lawmaker. According to El Universal, the opposition did not vote on the measures, saying the bill was “incomplete.”

·         AP says that Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has announced that Noriega’s old mansion will be bulldozed and replaced with a memorial park for those who suffered under his dictatorship. Meanwhile, France is set to announce whether it will extradite the former ruler back to Panama by the end of June.

·         Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has announced that he is willing to consult various social and political leaders (including members of the political opposition, apparently) next month over whether the country should hold a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution, and to identify what specific changes need to be made. According to El Heraldo, Lobo has scheduled a national dialogue on constitutional reform for Saturday, July 9th.

·         José Graziano da Silva used his first press conference since being elected head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to warn against “demonizing” biofuels. According to him, the use of biofuels does not necessarily have to compete with production for food. As FT points out, this is a reversal of the FAO’s traditional position on biofuels, which it frequently blames them for contributing to the rising cost of food worldwide.

·         Peruvian President Alan Garcia has inaugurated the giant Rio-style statue of “Christ the Redeemer” outside of Lima yesterday, despite objections by Lima Mayor Susana Villaran. According to La Republica, the statue is 22 meters tall and is illuminated at night by 26 multicolored lights. Although Garcia has referred to the statue a parting gift to the capital city, it was mostly paid for by OdebrechtWall Street Journal pointed out recently.

·         Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala met with Colombian head of state Juan Manuel Santos yesterday in Bogota, at as part of a series of meetings with his South American counterparts. According to La Republica, drug trafficking was at the top of their agenda.

·         Filling in for Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner at yesterday’s Mercosur summit, the country’s chief diplomat accused the UK of maintaining an "anachronistic colonial situation" in the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. As the BBC notes, Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman was responsing to recent remarks made by the British Defense Minister Liam Fox about his country’s willing to use force to defend their claim to the islands.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Documentary Casts Doubt on Famed Colombian Rescue Op

Nearly three years after the controversial “Operation Jaque,” in which the Colombian military posed as humanitarian workers in order to rescue French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American hostages (potentially violating the Geneva conventions in the process), new reports have emerged that question the official narrative of events. In a new documentary which has sparked a firestorm in the country, journalist Gonzalo Guillen claims the Colombian government actually paid the FARC millions of dollars for the prisoners’ release.

A screening of the documentary was held in Quito, Ecuador on Monday, and as Infobae reports, the film alleges that the two guerrillas charged with monitoring the hostages made ​​contact with the Colombian government, seeking $ 100 million in exchange for collaborating with the ruse. "It was a financial transaction," Guillen told reporters at the screeing, and then called for an official investigation into the matter.

Various individuals involved in the operation, for their part, have denied this claim. According to Caracol Radio, Carlos Toro, a Colombian lawyer who facilitated negotiations between the government and the two FARC guerrillas, denied ever having reached a final agreement on the release. Then-Commander of the armed forces Gen. Freddy Padilla, told El Espectador that not a single cent was paid for Betancourt’s release, and EFE says President Santos has dismissed Guillen as nothing but a “useful idiot.”

However, the report would fit with a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in February by Wikileaks, in which American diplomats noted that one of the guerrillas, alias "Cesar" had contacted the Uribe government with a request to be allowed to flee to France with his family in exchange for his help in release. As Colombia Reports noted in February, the guerrilla in question cannot be found in U.S. court records, despite the fact that officials claim he was extradited there.

News Briefs

·         New images and a video of Chavez were broadcast on Venezuelan state television yesterday, including footage of the Venezuelan leader poring over the latest edition of the Granma and discussing current events with Fidel. Although the Venezuelan government has held this up as further proof of the president’s recovery, they have not released any official health updates or said anything more specific about his surgery. According to Reuters, rumors in the country have reached a “frenzy,” with some sources claiming that the leader plans to return in time for a military parade this Friday. The Miami Herald contributes to this flurry, speculating on what Chavez’s death could mean for his allies in the ALBA bloc. Because of the way Chavez is handling the media coverage of this occasion, it seems more and more likely that he is simply using this opportunity to stoke up controversy over his 2013 presidential campaign. As FP notes, however, this strategy only serves to illustrate the weakness of Venezuela’s institutions without him. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the rising influence of his brother Adan, comparing the two siblings to the Castro brothers.

·         At the 41st Mercosur summit meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay yesterday, it was announced that the customs union’s four member states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) will start negotiations today with Bolivia and Ecuador, with the intention of upgrading their status as “associate” members to full membership, reports TeleSur. According to Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, the Paraguayan congress is expected to approve Venezuela for full membership soon, despite the fact that legislators have been postponing the vote for months.

·         The LA Times highlights the rise of drug trafficking through Ecuador, and the fact that anti-drug police in the country are finding themselves overwhelmed.

·         The Times also has two interesting reports on Peru’s economic development over the past decade, as the fastest growing country in Latin America. The first article highlights the transition of many of Lima’s pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) into genuine cities of their own, noting that the capital has progressed significantly since the height of the country’s internal conflict. The paper contrasts this with Ita, in southern Peru, where zero unemployment has made little progress in addressing education and health issues.

·         After both Brazil and the U.S. expressed their support for Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s board announced she would become the first woman to lead the organization. According to Bloomberg’s Eric Coleman, the former French Finance Minister is expected to boost the clout of the emerging BRIC nations in the international lending process.

·         Argentina’s La Nacion reports that President Cristina Fernandez canceled a trip to the Mercosur summit in Paraguay on Tuesday due to a doctor’s recommendation that she shouldn’t fly after suffering a minor head injury recently.

·         Chile’s government has announced it will move up winter break in the country, after more than 200 schools found themselves occupied by student protesters demanding improvements in the education system, according to El Nuevo Herald.

·         In an exclusive interview with Mexico’s Milenio TV, President Felipe Calderon said he feels "misunderstood" in his struggle against drug trafficking and organized crime. Noting that his administration has succeeded in capturing 21 of the country's 37 top drug lords, he claimed that many Mexicans support his policies, although “perhaps silently.” Calderon also brushed off suggestions for a Truth Commission, something the country’s anti-violence movement demanded at last Thursday’s meeting.

·         According to El Universal, Mexican officials are now investigating at least six police officers in Monday’s killing of a police chief in the Monterrey suburb of Santa Catarina. AP says the officers apparently did nothing to stop the attack.

·         Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security released a report last week which characterized the highly-fragmented Familia Michoacana as a terrorist organization, owing to the fact that it uses "propaganda tactics in a terrorist fashion to spread a climate of violence and social intimidation through executions, messages, threats on banners, and internet videos, with the objective of generating  impunity for their actions.” Because of the limits on civil liberties often justified in the name of countering “terrorism,” this is a potentially dangerous label to use. As InSight’s Patrick Corcoran points out, many other drug trafficking organizations in Mexico has used similar tactics at one time or another, so the move could open up a new phase in Mexico’s security crisis. Meanwhile, El Universal reports that 24 Michoacan police have been arrested this week for alleged connections to the Familia.

·         Siglo XXI has the latest poll numbers in Guatemala’s presidential elections. According to polling firm Vox Latina, it seems that former first lady Sandra Torres’s popularity has fallen by nearly six points since the last poll. According to the survey, OPartido Patriota (PP) candidate Otto Perez can now count on 41.2% of the vote in September, compared with Torres’s 15.1%. Interestingly, the paper also reports that a last week’s presidential debate saw both candidates expressing their willingness to host U.S. troops in their country to provide security.

·         The Center for International Media Assistance has released a new report on media freedom in the Americas entitled “Confronting the News:  The State of Independent Media in Latin America,” by Douglas Farah. Although the report focuses much of its attention on Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, it also notes constraints on journalist by non-state actors in Mexico and much of Central America.

·         The U.S. Department of State has released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which evaluates states’ efforts at combating human trafficking around the world. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Honduran Resistance Movement Officially Creates Political Party

According to Honduras’s El Heraldo, the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) has officially agreed to the creation of a new political party, which will participate in the 2013 presidential elections. At a rally in Tegucigalpa on Sunday, the ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya  was joined by 1,500 delegates of the Honduran resistance movement, who  announced that the new party will be called the Broad Front of Popular Resistance (Frente Amplio de Resistencia Popular - FARP). Like the ruling left-wing coalition in Uruguay, the Broad Front will bring together an alliance of socialists, social democrats and liberals who hope to challenge the hegemony of the country’s two main political forces: the Liberal and National parties.

Zelaya, who was allowed to return to Honduras on June 28 after reaching an agreement in late May with current President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, said that the political party does not aim to replace the FNRP, only to fulfill its goals through electoral means. Among these is the establishment of a constitutional referendum, the very move that triggered Zelaya’s 2009 ouster.

President Lobo, for his part, said that as a “lover of democracy,” he applauded the move.

In the coming months, the Broad Front’s political aims may be hampered by the political diversity within its own ranks. As Bertha Caceres (leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) told Upside Down World in a recent interview, the extremely diverse membership of the Resistance sometimes makes the group’s decision making process fairly fractured.

In addition, the movement still faces a number of institutional challenges as well. As AP reports, the movement needs to pursue legal recognition as a political party, for which it needs to collect 46,000 petition signatures. Meanwhile, El Heraldo noted earlier this month that some in the pro-Zelaya faction of the Liberal party are seeking a candidate with the political profile necessary to defeat the ruling National party while also getting support from the Resistance. So far they seem to be setting their sights on ex-first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, which would be a fairly controversial pick. According to La Tribuna, not everyone in the Liberal party is particularly comfortable with Zelaya’s agenda, and a substantial number have said they will not support the new party because of ideological differences.

News Briefs

·         The proposed FTA with Colombia seemed to hit a new roadblock on Monday, with the top Democract on the House Ways and Means Committee saying he will actively oppose the bill. Although Rep. Sander Levin (D, MI) has praised Colombia’s inclusion of labor protections in the FTA, he is demanding that it include assistance for unemployed workers in the U.S. who have lost their jobs because of overseas trade. According to Politico, the FTA could still be passed soon, as the Obama administration is attempting to broker a compromise on the labor protection measures.

·         InSight claims that Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are experiencing a resurgence in the country, thanks to an uptick in revenue from the drug trade as well as an increase in cooperation with the FARC. Meanwhile, Just the Facts highlights several Colombian journalists who argue that right-wing violence may be on the rise as well.

·         Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami announced on Saturday that counternarcotics officials in the country had orchestrated the biggest drug bust in the country so far this year, seizing five and a half tons of cocaine in the eastern state of Bolívar.

·         Venezuelan officials seem nowhere near ending the standoff between government forces and inmates at the El Rodeo prison complex, which has killed one inmate and two soldiers, while wounding at least 20 others. AP reports that the director of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, Humberto Prado, has called on the government to employ a conflict resolution specialist to mediate the conflict. Meanwhile officials have arrested the director and deputy of the prison, accusing them of drug and arms trafficking, El Universal reports.

·         As the crisis surrounding the unpopular Decree 743 unfolds in El Salvador, it seems that President Funes is losing support frombase. According to, his approval ratings are now at 41%, down from 83% in April. Voices from El Salvador recently wrote a comprehensive summary of the current political climate surrounding the decree, which requires the Supreme Court to make decisions unanimously instead of by majority vote.

·         More details have emerged about the recent kidnapping of several Central American migrants in southern Mexico. According to AP, a priest who runs a local migrant shelter has said at least 80 migrants were forcibly taken from a northbound train at gunpoint in Veracruz on Friday. As Mexico’s Vanguardia reports, diplomatic authorities from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have all asked the government to investigate the matter.

·         On Monday, gunmen burst into the police office in Santa Catarina - a suburb of Monterrey - and shot the police chief to death to death Monday, said El Universal.

·         Late last week, the hacker group known as LulzSec leaked several internal documents belonging to the Arizona state police. According to Reuters, the operation was subbed “Operacion Chinga La Migra,” in an apparent reference to the state’s infamous immigration laws. Interestingly, one of these documents reveals that U.S. authorities were informed of a party that Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” was going to attend with other high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel members near the border in early January 2009. As InSight reports, the Arizona officials made no attempt to inform Mexican authorities about their discovery. Given Guzman’s extensive influence, however, this is hardly surprising.

·         Supporters of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and members of his coalition are seeking to amend the country’s Constitution so that the President can seek re-election, AP reports. Currently, presidents in the country are limited to a single five-year term. As BBC Mundo points out, however, an amendment would have to go through Congress, which is largely controlled by Lugo’s political opponents.

·         In Brazil, a judge in Sao Paulo state has ruled that two men can legally convert their civil union into a full marriage, in a development that AP says is the nation's first gay marriage. Unfortunately, it is not yet clear whether the ruling sets a precedent in the country. If it does, Brazil would join Argentina and Mexico City in recognizing full marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

·         According to Reuters, Uruguay's President Jose Mujica has announced that he will revoke presidential decrees which granted amnesties to over 80 officials who allegedly committed human rights violations in the country’s dictatorship. The move comes after a failed attempt to repeal an amnesty law in May.

·         The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has published an analysis of Bolivia’s lithium deposits, which it says could transform the country into “the next Saudi Arabia.”

·         The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas reports on Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa’s recent targeting of media observation groups in the country, which he claims are receiving U.S. funding.

·         Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has finally selected her  running mate in the upcoming October elections. According to Mercopress, her choice of economic minister Amado Boudou is intended to court younger voters in Argentina

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Chavez Health Gossip Continues

Rumors continued to swirl over the weekend about the health of President Hugo Chavez, after El Nuevo Herald quoted an unnamed intelligence source as saying that Hugo Chavez is in “critical condition.”  This has been dismissed by Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra, who told AFP that the leader is recovering well from pelvic abscess surgery, and offered his recently updated Twitter page as proof. Obviously, because anyone could be ghostwriting Chavez’s account, this evidence is highly suspect.

The New York Times says the President’s prolonged stay in Cuba has struck a nerve amongst the Venezuelan opposition, especially among those who already objected to Chavez’s increased reliance on Cuban military advisers.  Particularly bothersome to them is the fact that Chavez has continued to sign bills into law during his stay there, a move which they claim is a violation of the Constitution.

Reports that Chavez’s “pelvic abscess” could be something more serious (like prostate cancer) have sparked an oddly public round of speculation regarding his health. According to Venezuela’s Ultimas Noticias, Chavez has been rumored to have at least four health problems in recent months, ranging from reports of a bad flu to paranasal sinus cancer. This speculation has been made worse by the fact that the government has not released an official medical report to date confirming the status of Chavez’s health.

Ultimately, if Chavez is in fact sicker than he is letting on, it is hard to know how this revelation could affect domestic politics back home.  On the one hand, the image-savvy Chavez could potentially play off a grave illness in order to earn “martyr status” in Venezuela, which might raise his approval rating and rally support for a harder shift left in the country. On the other hand, the opposition has been extremely effective at equating the lack of information regarding Chavez’s health with authoritarianism, so such an occurrence might end up backfiring and spreading disenchantment with the leader. According to Globovision, a recent poll by policy consultant Alfredo Keller found that 53% of Venezuelans disapprove of Chavez, and would support a change in government.

The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Fernando Soto, told reporters on Sunday that he would be the first to know if the president had cancer, and claimed that Chavez will return to the country on July 5th. Until then, it seems, we’ll have to endure the rumor-mongering.

·         In Chavez’s absence, Venezuela’s already polarized politics have become even more split along ideological lines. El Universal reports that Adan Chavez, Hugo Chavez’s brother and governor of Barinas state, has called on Socialist Party (PSUV) activists not to rule out armed struggle in addition to electoral struggle as a way to maintain power and carry out the Bolivarian Revolution. This remark was swiftly denounced by Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, secretary of the opposition Mesa de la Unidad (MUD).  Aveledo noted that Chavez’s first attempt to gain power through violence failed, saying “he took office by the vote and by the vote he’ll leave.”

·         Meanwhile, the standoff between inmates and security forces at Venezuela’s El Rodeo prison complex continues. According to EFE, the Vatican’s top official in Venezuela called on inmates to give up their weapons on Sunday, and urged the government to ensure basic human rights guarantees for the prisoners. The Guardian has more on the blame game playing out in the country, with government officials accusing the opposition of links to the prisoners and the opposition blaming the incident on governmental neglect.

·         Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has spoken out against U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), who have voiced their objection to the nomination of Jonathan Farrar as ambassador to Nicaragua. As the Miami Herald reported last week, Sens. Menendez and Rubio complained at Farrar’s hearing that he was too soft on the Cuban government while he served as the top U.S. diplomatic official there, and have threatened to put a hold on the nomination. The two believe that a “firmer” diplomat is needed to protect democracy in Managua, where President Ortega is running for an allegedly illegal second consecutive term in office in the upcoming November elections. According to EFE, Ortega dismissed the Senators’ objections as hypocritical, and used the occasion to point out the United States’ noncompliance with a 1986 International Court of Justice ruling which ordered the U.S. to pay reparations for illegally funding the Contras. Perhaps ironically, Ortega criticized Menendez and Rubio’s view of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations as being “stuck in the past.”

·         Plaza Publica’s Julie Lopez reports that a combination of counternarcotics strategies and infighting between Mexican cartels has significantly altered the main drug transport routes through Central America. The article presents a helpful map of cartel influence in Guatemala, which mostly confirms what most analysts already know: the Gulf Cartel has lost a significant chunk of its territory to the Zetas, and Sinaloa Cartel influence remains strong in the country.

·         The New York Times reports on mining giant Pacific Rim’s attempt to sue El Salvador for lost profits after the country failed to grant permission for the company to build a gold mine in San Isidro.

·         Mexico’s El Universal reports that a group of armed men have kidnapped an unknown number of Central American migrants in Veracruz, including several children, while they were on a northbound train, heading to the border. Back in February, the country’s National Commission of Human Rights released a report documenting 214 cases of mass kidnappings of migrants, with a total of 11,333 victims from April to September 2010.

·         Following last Thursday’s dialogue between Mexican President Calderon and the country’s anti-violence movement, led by poet Javier Sicilia, it seems that a similar meeting will occur in the coming days, this time with Mexico’s Congress.  Carlos Navarrete, leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the Senate, has announced via his personal blog that he is organizing a meeting between Mexico’s legislators and the movement, known as the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.  Navarrete says details of the time and place of the meeting will likely be announced on Wednesday.

·         Although Chile has since announced its support for Agustín Carstens’s attempt to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the head of the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor offers some insight into why the other “ABC countries” (Argentina and Brazil) may be holding back.

·         Bad news for Argentina’s struggle against money laundering: the Financial Action Task Force has put the country on its “gray list” of tax havens that have not fully implemented global transparency standards. As La Nacion reports, the move came despite the recent passage of an ant-money laundering law.

·         Brazil’s Jose Graziano da Silva was elected to serve as Director General of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the organization’s first new leader in nearly twenty year. According to Mercopress, Graziano da Silva has promised to prioritize the world’s record-high food prices, which the World Bank says have driven 44 million people into poverty since June 2010.

·         The Associated Press has used White House budgets, Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional testimony to come up with an exact price tag for enhanced U.S. border security measures. The cost? $90 billion over the past ten years.

·         According to La Republica, Peru’s outgoing government has canceled plans for a Canadian silver mine in the sourthern state of Puno, after six people were killed in clashes between police and local indigenous communities, who opposed the project. As AP notes, this is the latest in a series of major anti-mining mobilizations in the country.

·         The Andean Information Network has a new report on the prospect for judicial reforms in Bolivia, with a focus on the upcoming judicial elections in October. According to the report, President Morales’s MAS government faces challenges relating to transparency in the pre-selection and electoral processes.

·         The Center for Democracy in the Americas has more on the proposed amendment to Cuban travel and remittances in the House. In addition to restoring Bush-era restrictions on family travel and remittances, the amendment also repeals the remittances permitted under Obama’s 2011 directive from any American to qualified Cubans of up to $2,000 per year. 

·         Finally, a correction from Friday’s post. Despite the fact that the AFP reported that Peru has topped Colombia as the world’s top cocaine producer, Colombia is still “number one,” although the two countries are nearly tied. According to the original UNODC report, Colombia grew 62,000 hectares’ worth of illegal coca in 2010 (adjusting for small fields), while Peru grew 61,200.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Calderon Meets with Peace Movement, Defends Security Strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderon met with poet Javier Sicilia and other representatives of the country’s ant-violence movement yesterday in a three-hour meeting that was, by all accounts, extremely emotional. In Sicilia’s opening remarks, he accused Calderon of being responsible for the thousands of drug-related violence in the country, and demanded an apology from the leader. Instead of increasing security, Sicilia said, Calderon’s military-heavy counternarcotics strategy has strengthened a “criminal conception of power” in the country.

Other movement representatives who offered their testimony included Omar Esparza, a community leader from Oaxaca who complained to the President that no arrests had been made on a recent attack on a protest there, and freelance journalist Julian Le Baron, who denounced impunity for those who had kidnapped his relatives in Chihuahua. At one point, Le Baron lost patience with the proceedings, and at one point accused Calderon of “insulting” the victims. El Universal has a list of some of the most pointed criticisms, available here.

Perhaps the most promising outcome of the meeting was the attention given to Mexico’s corrupt judicial system, which has long proven itself unable to effectively administer justice. As El Universal reports, Sicilia reserved special criticism for the country’s courts. “We've talked to the legislature, we talked to the executive branch, but we have not spoken with the judiciary…we have not received a single call from them despite the fact and they have very serious responsibilities to the nation. "

This criticism was partially echoed by the president, who acknowledged corruption within the judiciary but claimed there was little he could do without specific evidence.  In response to this, Mexico’s Supreme Court released a statement expressing its willingness to meet with civil society organizations fighting for the improvement of public security and the eradication of violence.

At the end of the meeting, Sicilia and Calderon exchanged an extremely awkward embrace, and agreed to meet again in three months. Whether this or not the meeting will bring about any difference in tactics remains to be seen, but it is highly unlikely considering Calderon’s reaction to the testimony. Although he recognized that the state has failed in protecting the victims (and apologized for this) he did not acknowledge that his strategy was responsible for a sharp increase in violence in the country, as some analysts argue (see policy expert Eduardo Guerrero’s recent article in Nexos). He also refused to apologize for “acting against the criminals who are killing the victims,” according to La Jornada. If anything, Calderon expressed regret for not adopting this strategy sooner, which does not bode well for the future of insecurity in the country.

News Briefs

·         The UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its 2011 World Drug Report yesterday, which reveals some interesting developments in the global market for illicit drugs. The report confirms what counternarcotics officials in the U.S. have long been saying: Colombian coca production has declined, and Peru has officially surpassed Colombia to become the world's largest producer of coca. However, reports of coca production in Colombia may be overstated.  As the White House Office of National Drug Control director Gil Kerlikowske noted in a recent press report, "Colombia is holding the line against coca cultivation after major decreases in 2007 and 2008." Just the Facts points out that this does not necessarily mean the country is making progress, but only indicates that there has been little change since 2008. Also, this dynamic has been complicated by internal political factors in Peru. Although president-elect Ollanta Humala has promised to be “tough” on drugs and crime in the country, AFP says that links between his Nationalist Party and coca growers’ unions may make this difficult. Unfortunately, the UN’s 2010 data on coca production in Bolivia was not included in the report, although most are predicting a moderate increase in the country.

·         The main coalition partner of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, the PMDB, is becoming increasingly unwilling to make compromises, effectively slowing the rate of legislation down to a crawl and complicating the country’s efforts at reforming the tax code. As Reuters and FT report, this comes after President Dilma Rousseff’s chief of staff resigned due to allegations of corruption, which made her appear more vulnerable and opened her up to increasing criticism.

·         The UNODC’s director, Yury Fedotov, has called the lower house of the Bolivian Congress’s decision to withdraw from the UN Single Convention on Narcotics a “worrisome” development, EFE reports. Bolivia’s House of Representatives passed the bill on Wednesday, and it will now move to the Senate, where it will likely pass as the MAS party has a two-thirds majority. As I noted in a recent article for InSight Crime however, the move itself is not likely to alter coca production in Bolivia one way or another.

·         Ciudad Juarez’s controversial police official, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, escaped an ambush by gunmen on Thursday while on patrol, says El Universal. Leyzaola has been on the job for a mere three months, and has cultivated a reputation as a formidable enemy of the cartels due to his combative anti-crime tactics.

·         The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is awarding the the 2011 Knight International Journalism Award, to two Mexican journalists who have risked their lives covering the illegal drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border.

·         Reuters says Peru’s  privately-run pension funds are swiftly becoming one of the most important campaign issues for Humala, who has in the past proposed the creation mandatory government-run pension system that would have effectively destroyed the funds.

·         On Thursday the House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of an amendment (available here) to roll back recent measures which facilitate travel and money transfers from Cuban-Americans to their relatives on the island. As the Miami Herald reports, the amendment was first presented by Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who claims that the changes have allowed for a major inflow of funds to Cuba, which he claims is “the largest source of revenue of the [Castro’s] dictatorship.” The move would require licenses for family visits to the island, limit the scope of relatives that would be eligible to visit, and restrict visits to once every three years for a maximum of 14 days. Geoff Thale, Program Director at WOLA, points out that the amendment faces several obstacles, including opposition from the White House

·         IPS reports on the friction at this week’s SICA convention on Central American security. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom responded to attempts by the United States and Europe to pressure Central America to increase their tax base by urging them “with the same emphasis” to reduce drug consumption in their own countries.

·         Despite yesterday’s announcement by Venezuelan authorities that Chavez is healing well from surgery in Cuba and will return to the country in 10-12 days, rumors continue to swirl that his health may be worse than he is letting on. The AP notes that no one has heard him speak since he talked by telephone with Venezuelan state television on June 12, saying he was quickly recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. Chavez, who turns 57 next month, said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.The Wall Street Journal became one of the first in the U.S. media to parrot gossip that the Venezuelan leader could be suffering from prostate cancer, and may have had his prostate removed.

·         The standoff at Venezuela’s Rodeo I and II prisons continued in Venezuela on Thursday, despite attempts made by officials to begin a dialogue with the inmates. Venezuela’s El Universal reports that Justice and Interior Minister Tareck Al Aissami said officials made contact with the inmates for the first time on Wednesday, and was able to speak directly with a group representing the inmates inside Rodeo II. However, the official claimed that the prisoners were refusing to negotiate.  According to the prisoners’ relatives, who have made contact with them via smuggled cell phones, the prisoners demanded that officials allow them to meet with their relatives and members of the press, as well withdraw the National Guard, before negotiations began. The Economist has written a tidy analysis of the conflict, highlighting overcrowding and violence in Venezuela’s prison system.

·         The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), along with more than 400 other organizations, academics, and individuals from both the United States and Colombia, has sent a letter to the U.S. Congress asking representatives to vote no on the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. In the letter, the leader of the U.S. Steelworkers Union (USW) claimed that FTAs with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia would undermine economic recovery, further harm American manufacturing jobs, and deepen economic insecurity.

·         The Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled on Thursday that authorities must first consult indigenous people before conducting aerial eradication of coca crops on native lands, Caracol Radio reports. In response to the ruling, Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras called the decision a "huge concern," saying it would make the government’s efforts to fight domestic drug growth more difficult.

·         Just in time for the two-year anniversary of Honduras’ June 28, 2009 coup, Just the Fact’s Adam Isaacson has a helpful timeline of the major events following President Manuel Zelaya’s removal.

·         Mercopress reports that Brazil and Spain are fielding the leading candidates the upcoming June 26 election for the next head of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN agency leading the struggle against global hunger. The article notes that Brazil may be leveraging its candidate by pointing that Europe seems poised to “take over the IMF,” an apparent reference to the race between Mexico’s Agustin Carsten and France’s Christine Lagarde to become director of the IMF, where the latter is seen as the favorite, according to AP.

·         Finally, the L.A. Times profiles outgoing Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s strange “personal gift” to the city of Lima: a massive statue of "Christ of the Pacific" that resembles the famed statue above Rio de Janeiro.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

UNODC Releases 2011 World Drug Report

The United Nations’ 2011 World Drug Report will be released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today at 10:00 New York time. This annual report highlights developments across the global drug market to explain the factors that drive the world's consumption, production and trafficking of illicit drugs. An official launch will be held at the UN headquarters and can be watched online via the UN’s Webcast. According to the UNODC website, the event will be attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss, Russian Federal Narcotics Service Director Viktor Ivanov and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske.

Because the theme of the 2011 World Drug Campaign is “Global Action for Healthy Communities without Drugs,” the report is expected to highlight the role that communities play in addressing society’s drugs challenge. Additionally, since the UNODC also incorporates the secretariat of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the investigation is also expected to include some of the data from the INCB’s 2010 report, which was released in March of this year.

Perhaps the most significant of the INCB’s findings was that South America has experienced an overall reduction in coca cultivation, mainly because of a drop in Colombia's production (the region reported 158,000 hectares in 2009, 8,800 hectares less than 2008; while Colombia reported 68,000 hectares in 2009, a 16 percent decrease from 2008). The report also notes there has been an increase in local demand throughout Latin America, a worrisome trend for anti-drug officials.

News Briefs

·            At yesterday’s Central American Security Conference (SICA) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised $300 million in U.S. security funding year. For its part, the World Bank unveiled a billion-dollar funding plan, and was joined by Inter-American Development Bank, which also said it would provide some $500 million, spread over two years, AFP reports.  Although in her remarks Clinton claimed that the U.S. contribution was $100 million more than the “more than $200 million” that President Obama promised in his March visit to El Salvador, The New York Times points out that this aid is only a 10 percent increase from 2010.

·            Following the failure of an extensive international campaign to amend the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics yesterday the Bolivian Congress approved President Evo Morales' request to withdraw from the Convention on Narcotics. Although Morales and his MAS party claim that the move is intended to bring its international duties in line with its constitution, which allows coca cultivation for traditional use traditional usage, the opposition claims that it will reduce international faith in Bolivia’s counternarcotics operations. The law will allow Bolivia to readmit itself to the Convention in January of 2012, but will not apply to Article 49, which considers all coca production unlawful, even that which is grown for chewing or for medicinal purposes.

·            The much-anticipated meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and anti-violence movement leader Javier Sicilia has been relocated by authorities from the Museum of Anthropology to Chapultepec Castle, due to security concerns.   The president, and some members of his cabinet, will meet with 35 representatives of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity at 10:00am local time (11:00am EST). El Milenio will have a live video feed of the proceedings, available here.  It is not yet clear whether the cabinet members involved will include Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, who has been a target of the movement since they first demanded his resignation during a public protest in May. For more on this, see my article over at InSight Crime.

·            The body count in Durango’s mass grave has risen to 250, of which 236 are men and 14 are women, according to InfoBAE. The grave is far and away the largest “narcofosa” found to date in Mexico.

·            Salvadoran guerrilla leader turned centrist Joaquin Villalobos presents his take on Mexico’s drug war in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

·            The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the winners of its Knight News Challenge today at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. The 16 winners will receive $4.7 million in funding for digital news experiments that inform and engage communities. One of the winners is Miguel Paz, a Chilean whose project, Poderopedia .com is intended to be a “who’s who” of business and politics in Chile.

·            Colombia Reports says President Santos has proposed the creation of a series of regional security centers to collect information on crime and illegal arms in countries in the region, in a joint effort to combat regional organized crime.

·            Putting an end to some of the recent speculation about his health, Venezuelan Minister of Defense Carlos Mata Figueroa said Thursday that President Hugo Chavez is recuperating well from his surgery in Cuba, reports El Universal.  His brother Adan Chavez, who is also the governor of Barinas state, said late on Wednesday that he is expected to return to Venezuela within 10-12 days.  

·            State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released by McClatchy reveal that Catholic Church officials in Venezuela supported efforts to remove President Hugo Chavez in the 2002 coup attempt, with the encouragement of the Bush administration. All of this occurred despite explicit orders by Pope John Paul II to stay out of the matter.

·            The Miami Herald takes a look at a bill in Congress that would allow immigration officials to hold convicted foreign nationals until they can be deported. For Cubans, who cannot be deported, immigrant rights activists say could lead to their indefinite detention.

·            In Peru, La Republica reports that three people died in clashes between police and students protesting a cut to a local university’s funding earlier this week. According to Reuters, more than 90 people have died in similar incidents in the past three and a half years, which is a sign of an emerging wave of “social conflicts” that President-elect Ollanta Humala will have to confront.

·            A cyber attack from the self-styled “Lulz Security” hacker group blocked traffic to several Brazilian government websites on Wednesday, AP reports. The latest incident follows cyberattacks launched by another hacker group, “Anonymous,” who have announced a campaign against the governments of Chile and Peru in what they call "Operacion Andes Libre." Although denial of service attacks are more of a nuisance than a security threat, Latin America is ill-equipped to deal with such attempts, as freelance writer James Bosworth notes.

·            Finally, Guatemala’s elPeriodico reports on the process that led to the arrest of General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes. The former military commander is accused of committing crimes against humanity, including ordering genocide and rape in the context of war. As the article notes, although Rios Montt was technically in charge of the Guatemalan armed forces at the time these abuses occurred, there is little hope that the former de facto head of state will be implicated in the investigation.